Maybe it says everything about the way the All Blacks are that the day after they learned their final pool game against Italy had been cancelled, they woke up super early and battered themselves senseless in a training game.
Well, we think they had a game amongst themselves but they won’t actually say. Apparently it’s a little bit top secret and on a need-to-know basis what they actually did, with head coach Steve Hansen obviously of the view that none of the other seven teams left in the tournament need to know.
Asked how the All Blacks have spent the last few days and Hansen said: “I don’t think it was a bad thing we had a week off.
“We are quite excited by that fact. It allowed us to work really hard on Friday. Our GPS numbers were equivalent or just above what they would be for a normal test match so we don’t feel we have lost any opportunity to get ourselves to where we feel we need to be and the exciting part is that we had Saturday locked up in the hotel because we couldn’t do anything because of the storm.”
Whether it really was exciting that the All Blacks found themselves bunkered down in their Tokyo hotel like everyone else bracing for Typhoon Hagibis, is debatable. Captain Kieran Read revealed that the squad split their time between playing cards and darts and watching bad comedy films.
But Hansen’s point was more that they had a full day’s rest and recovery which, given the perennial moan from coaches everywhere that their players are always half broken because of having to play too much, he was celebrating as a small victory.
And he was particularly celebrating that fact as the last time the All Blacks played Ireland, they were on their last legs after yet another ultra long and demanding season.
Ireland’s victory was entirely deserved, earned fair and square. But, still, it would be remiss to take it at face value as the All Blacks had played nine tests in 12 weeks before they arrived in Ireland in a schedule that had taken them from Auckland to Sydney, to Buenos Aires, to Pretoria, to Tokyo, to London, and then Dublin.
They had been around the world twice and played two brutal encounters with South Africa, three with Australia and one with England as well as tests against Argentina and Japan before they took on Ireland. Which was why half the pack Ireland are likely to face in the quarter-final were either not at their best in Dublin last year or not even there.
Sam Whitelock, who had also endured a heavy workload as captain of the title-winning Crusaders in Super Rugby flew home straight after that test rather than play the last one in Rome. He was running on empty in Dublin, one-paced as a result of a groin strain that had plagued him all year and just wouldn’t relent.
Liam Squire only managed 25 minutes before his body caved in to yet another injury and the bruising blindside hasn’t played a test since. Joe Moody didn’t make it to Ireland as he required plastic surgery on a cut to his eye-lid and Sam Cane was at home recovering from a broken neck he suffered playing against the Springboks.
Read, by his own admission, was playing at about 95% as he hadn’t fully recovered from major back surgery in December 2017 and then there was Brodie Retallick. He was in Dublin, not that anyone would have known, for the giant lock played the worst test of his career.
The big man had missed the Rugby Championship with a broken shoulder and while he’d managed a half hour against the Wallabies in Japan and delivered a man-of-the-match effort at Twickenham in the two tests before, it was just too much for him to back up a third time.
So Hansen feels he has every reason to celebrate the match fitness of his squad, particularly his pack who are in vastly better condition now than they were 10 months ago. The one exception is potentially Retallick who in an eerily similar repeat, missed most of this year’s Rugby Championship with a dislocated shoulder and has only managed a half hour against Namibia since he returned.
The All Blacks are confident, though, they can get a world class 80 minutes out of him this week and then will worry about whether he can repeat it in the semi-final —if they are in the semi-final.
And it’s maybe the All Blacks’ mental strength rather than physical of which Ireland should be most wary. For four weeks during the pool rounds the All Blacks have been all smiles, selfies, jokes, and big laughs with everyone and anyone.
The instant their quarter-final opponent was confirmed, the shutters came down and game faces were on. A definite edge has infiltrated their camp. They have flicked that switch and are unambiguous about what needs to be done this week and how they should go around doing it.
Ireland may have looked to have regressed since they beat the All Blacks a year ago, but no one in New Zealand is daft enough to believe they are a spent force or not capable of delivering a knockout blow in Tokyo. Ireland’s two wins in their last three encounters with New Zealand has built enormous respect and then there is the Joe Schmidt factor.
He’ll have seen a weakness in the All Blacks no one else has and devised some scheme to exploit it. The All Blacks know his propensity to surprise and they know that Ireland, whatever they may lack in imagination, make up for in tenacity and pragmatism.
“If you get to this stage, the eight teams here are capable of winning the competition,” says Read, not so much to state the obvious but to reiterate that the All Blacks are in deadly serious mode now.
“Physically and probably mentally they are all on par. So it is about who can step up in the actual moment, the pressure moment when it does come, when opportunity presents itself. Who wants to take it? It is important you acknowledge that and get ready to take it. I know where I want to end.”