Even before the All Blacks left for Sydney, coach Steve Hansen was talking about the threat the Wallabies possess, and that continued when the team landed on Sunday and it has continued again today 48 hours ahead of the first Bledisloe Cup test.
What has been especially notable is that there has been no baiting of rival coach Michael Cheika, with whom Hansen has had – in the media anyway – an often combustable relationship. Instead, the All Blacks coach was charm personified as he doubled down on his assertion that their big rival from across the Ditch should be recognised as the favourites at ANZ Stadium.
Some of it is simple; as Hansen said today, the Wallabies won the last time these two teams played against each other – a 23-18 victory for the home side in Brisbane in October – but there also seems to be a growing respect from the New Zealand coach regarding the improvements the Australians have made.
They showed in their narrow series loss to Ireland in June that they can be hard to stop when at the top of their game. There is also a new, more physical, edge, led by locks Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman. That hardness is something Cheika has been striving for since he took over from Ewen McKenzie in November, 2014. Now it appears his team have finally found it.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The Wallabies line-up hadn't been announced by the time Hansen held his press conference in the All Blacks' hotel in the plush Sydney suburb of Double Bay, but in the past he has attempted to get under Cheika's skin by naming it anyway. Today he suspected Reece Hodge would be named at centre opposite the inexperienced Jack Goodhue, but he didn't try to make any mileage from it.
You probably have to go back to the week of the World Cup final of 2015 to find the last time Hansen and the All Blacks were so determined to say nothing about the Wallabies which could be used against them by Cheika and company. The conclusion is it's both a sign of respect and an attempt by Hansen to narrow his players' focus on what he thinks will be a very hard-fought test.
"I think they're a good side. They've improved a heck of a lot, they've done a lot of work on their running lines, their core set piece roles, and their scrum has got better. Looking at it against Ireland, they've quickened up their lineout a lot and obviously their kicking game is good so obviously we're going to have to put a lot of pressure on all those areas to compete."
Asked whether the rock solid Crusaders midfield partnership of Goodhue and Ryan Crotty might give the All Blacks an advantage over Kurtley Beale and Hodge, the latter starting at No 13 after recently playing a utility role, Hansen said: "It might give us a little bit of an advantage but they've got quality players, haven't they? Reece Hodge has been in the squad a long time. He's played at second-five, he's played on the wing, he's played at fullback – I think they understand how he plays."
Hansen was also asked about the players' motivation for tests and his role in it. He said, as he has before, that it's not his job to motivate his players – at this level they have to do it themselves. And as for whether his naming the Wallabies favourites was to trigger mental "cues"? Hansen wasn't having that either.
"I think they're aware of it – they lost last time to them so you don't have to give them any mental cues. I was just being honest. If it's a horse race and the other horse wins the race he's got to be the favourite [next time]. The TAB doesn't see that, but the TAB like making money.
"We haven't played them [in 2018] yet," was Hansen's response to the question of the All Blacks' Bledisloe Cup dominance since 2003. "You can get caught up in the past or you can focus on what's happening right now. You've got two quality teams who are going head to head."