All Blacks playing it cool ahead of Bockbuster

All Blacks playing it cool ahead of Bockbuster
Sevu Reece of the All Blacks practices his kicking during a Rugby World Cup training session at Tatsuminomori Seaside Park, Tokyo. Picture: Hannah Peters.

There was a point during New Zealand’s media duties yesterday when Ben Smith turned towards Aaron Smith and suggested that this latest Q&A was turning into some sort of counselling session.

If that sounds deep, then it wasn’t.

The Smiths had been asked to expound on their own strengths as players but ended up singing the other’s praises instead.

It was all getting very Dr Phil and the players could only laugh at the almost confessional turn taken by the conference.

It was all so chilled. A team very much at their ease.

You wouldn’t have blamed the All Blacks had they appeared tense and tight with Saturday’s Pool B opener against South Africa zooming into focus. Australia and the Boks have dented their aura this year, just as Ireland did in November. Wales and the Irish have taken turns as world No.1.

A source of angst, perhaps? An affront to the back-to-back world champs?

“I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference to us, quite frankly,” said assistant coach Ian Foster who brushed off chat about his hopes of succeeding Steve Hansen post-Japan.

“Regardless of ranking, we have got our expectations that are pretty high and that’s what we want to live up to.

It probably makes a bit of a difference to some other teams that you are asking those sort of questions, which is good. There are a lot of teams that deserve the right to be considered as contenders and it’s going make it a really interesting World Cup.

Well played, sir. Well played.

Foster pointed out how the Kiwis were “always in a heightened state” when they prepare to face their greatest rivals but you couldn’t find a trace of stress as he and then four of his players breezed their way through the questions and answers session.

It’s not that they weren’t presented with opportunities to bite or bark.

South African assistants Mzwandile Brick and Matthew Proudfoot fired shots across the bows with talk about match officials having to ‘respect the game’ — translation: not give the Kiwis all the breaks — and the suggestion that Brodie Retallick, ruled out for weeks, could make the opener.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a little trick up their sleeve,” said Proudfoot yesterday. There is nothing subtle to this. It is as obvious that the Bok brains trust is trying to get inside their heads but Foster wasn’t about to grant them admittance.

“He’s quite hard to hide from you guys,” he said of Retallick.

“He is a 6’ 9” monster so we haven’t been sneaking him in in training or anything like that. He is progressing really, really strongly. I’m pretty sure he won’t be playing on Saturday, but who knows?”

There was no hint of a volley or sneaky barb in the opposite direction.

Suggestions that their opponents were a bit of a predictable bunch were refashioned into compliments. “Respect,” was the word Foster offered when asked to sum up a rivalry with a team that challenges them the most physically and then bonds best with them in the sheds afterward.

This pair could do with their weekend tango. Given a chance, both would opt for a more gentle dip of the toes into World Cup waters but the flip side to that is that the magnitude of the first game demands that they dive right in.

Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff may or may not take in the Kiwi-Bok game on Saturday but Steve Hansen and his staff certainly won’t be returning to the stadium in Yokohama for the Ireland-Scotland game 24 hours later.

As for a preferable quarter-final opponent? Not now, thanks.

We know how important that is but, ultimately, our goal is to focus on the opposition that we are playing. We are hugely excited about it and, like I said, there is no better game for us to start than this one because we will know exactly where we are at.

"You want to get your performance right,” said Foster.

“We want to go kick this tournament off at a level that we can put a marker down and say, ‘that’s where we are at.’ For our own information more than anything.”

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