Finally the fun returns to All Blacks rugby

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 11/06/2012
 Guildford
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CHILLED OUT: Wing Zac Guildford says there is a more relaxed vibe in the All Blacks squad now that the World Cup hoodoo has been laid to rest.
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OPINION: This could be fun.

There was something different about the All Blacks' first up test of the year at Eden Park on Saturday night.

It was hard to put a finger on it at first, but in the aftermath of the 42-10 win over Ireland it has become clear New Zealand rugby is a little lighter in load.

Seven months after that tense night against France, Steve Hansen has become the first All Blacks coach in 20-odd years not to have the Rugby World Cup monkey perched on his back.

That burden has, at times, destroyed the notion of enjoying or celebrating success.

When it has come to the All Blacks, we Kiwis have consumed ourselves with worry and concern for so long it has become habit.

A test win has become a cue to begin hand wringing over how the side is tracking towards the world cup.

But wing Zac Guildford noted yesterday there was a more relaxed atmosphere in the camp this season, while fullback Israel Dagg spoke of how much "fun" the backs had against Ireland.

And yesterday Hansen confirmed a better balance might be possible without the pressure of ending the cup drought.

"There was a pretty big monkey that's been around this country for a very long time and I think we are all feeling a little more relaxed because of that," he said, as he sipped a coffee at the team hotel.

"This is just a different era. We are starting again. I'm quite a relaxed person myself so when we're not training and working from my point of view it's OK to chill out.

"For me it's about making sure we prepare well and if we do we'll get a performance we are proud of."

Complacency's not an issue with perfectionists like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith driving the team culture.

But there was a noticeable difference in the body language of the two sides in Auckland.

Where Ireland's players were tense and poker faced, the All Blacks, including those on debut, were relaxed and smiling, even early in the test.

That hasn't always been the case and only two years ago they tied themselves in knots in losing their season opener to France.

Many players speak of the ability to switch on and off, but the latter has often been difficult for an All Blacks side playing under the weight of a nation.

Expectations have not changed. Winning is paramount and the microscope will continue to be applied to performance. It is what keeps New Zealand ahead of the pack.

But perhaps, in year one of the next Rugby World Cup cycle, these players will enjoy a balance not seen for some years.

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