Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Stay calm call to foil party spoilers

The Wallabies set out to distract the All Blacks the last time they met. Photo / Photosport.nz
The Wallabies set out to distract the All Blacks the last time they met. Photo / Photosport.nz

The All Blacks will spend this week searching for their cold, clinical emotionless inner selves.

It's how they have to be to play an Australian side that niggled them into poor decisions the last time they met and pulled the focus to areas it should never have been.

No one was particularly happy after the All Blacks' 29-9 victory against the Wallabies in late August. There were blasts of good rugby, periods of control and focus but, for too much of the game, too many individuals got caught up reacting to provocation.

Australia, with not much else to offer, decided they would be able to distract the All Blacks if they played them off the ball. There was ample jersey pulling and post-tackle shoving and verbal spraying designed to entrap New Zealand's players into reacting.

It worked more than it should have. Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick in particular took the bait too often and in the post-match review, there was some concern the team spent too long getting caught up in the nonsense.

"We knew they would come out a lot more physical and potentially with a bit of niggle," Sam Cane said a few days later. "The way they went about it was probably what caught us off-guard just a fraction but we acknowledged pretty quickly that was how they were going to play.

"In a funny way, it's a good thing when you realise the opposition are playing like that because it means they're not really focused on their footy as much. And as long as we worry about playing footy and executing our stuff right, then there should be some answers."

Having made that mistake once, the All Blacks will be determined not to repeat it and helping them retain their focus and clarity is the significant goal of becoming the first tier one side to win 18 consecutive tests. How big a deal this is for the team shouldn't be underestimated.

The All Blacks are driven by big goals and, while consecutive victories may appear to be slightly obscure, it's viewed as relevant and high value by the players. Coach Steve Hansen believes the hardest challenge in sport is backing up quality performances with quality performances.

He tasks his players with being better each time they play and to find a consistency in their mental preparation that enables the same standards of application and execution every time they play. History shows how hard that is for any side in any code - even the greatest sides have blips, poor performances in the middle of a golden era.

To win 18 tests in succession will provide some kind of tangible proof that Hansen's All Blacks have found a way to retain their high values over a considerable period of time. It will be evidence they are defying convention and forcing everyone to reassess what is possible.

Further intensifying their desire to be right on the button mentally is the knowledge Australia are a better side now than they were the last time they met and also have a track record of spoiling the All Blacks' party.

The Wallabies have beaten South Africa and Argentina twice since these two last met. That has given them a lift in confidence and many of their component parts look in better shape than they did a few weeks ago.

They have fixed their malfunctioning lineout and built an element of midfield cohesion with Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley and Samu Kerevi combining with some conviction now. With those building blocks in place, the Wallabies are better set up to unleash the full running power of Israel Folau and ask the sorts of questions of the All Blacks' defence that no other side has so far this year.

The icing on the cake is that coach Michael Cheika would love nothing more than to defeat the All Blacks at Eden Park on the night the home side could make history. The relationship between the two teams is strained and, having not won in Auckland since 1986, the Wallabies are equally motivated to make history of a different kind.

- Herald on Sunday

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