Time for All Blacks to go perfect all over again
How do you follow 14-0? You don't, says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. You put a full stop on the most successful season in professional rugby and you start again. Prove yourself all over.
It's perhaps symbolic then, given Hansen's views yesterday as he cast ahead to the year's opening test at Eden Park tomorrow night, that there in the engine room of this All Blacks lineup looking to extend that 14-game win streak from last season was a certain Jerome Kaino, 31 years young and playing some of the best rugby of his career.
Hansen had a tough call in his loose trio taken away from him when 2013 IRB player of the year Kieran Read pulled out on Monday with a continuation of his ongoing head issues. That immediately made room for both Liam Messam, at No 6, and Kaino to slip back into test rugby at No 8.
Kaino's last test was the 2011 World Cup final at the same ground where he'll relaunch his international career. He's had two seasons in Japan, and a mightily impressive return to the Kiwi scene with the Blues in Super Rugby this year.
"I never wanted him to go in the first place -- we had a bit of a discussion about that," Hansen said yesterday.
"But he always said he'd come back and he's come back at the right time. I think he's like a caged animal."
If Kaino is about to unleash the beast against the English, he was keeping it on the down-low yesterday as he reflected on another special moment in his career that's spanned 48 tests, and well over a decade of pretty hard-hitting footy.
"It' great to be a part of the team, and to get a starting spot is even more special," he said.
"I've just got to prepare well to get a performance out there because I've got some big shoes to fill."
Kaino said it was great to start the comeback on his home ground that held so many special memories and described the emotions as pretty similar to when he first made the All Blacks way back in 2004.
"When I came back there was a lot of depth at flanker and I thought my chances of making the team were pretty slim. I knew I had my work cut out to be able get a spot in the team."
His confidence levels are high after a series of high-impact displays for the Blues, he says he's now comfortable at his less preferred No 8 but he's also taking nothing for granted because "international rugby is a different beast than Super 15".
Hansen made it clear yesterday that what the All Blacks achieved last year, was last year, and all those gaudy numbers that accompany this team - they haven't lost at Eden Park since 1994, and have rattled off 31 straight victories at their Auckland stronghold - were largely immaterial.
"If we hang on to last year we'll get thumped," Hansen said.
"The first things we've got to do is exactly what we did after winning the World Cup - put a full stop on it. Yeah, it was a good year, but the reality is we could have been beaten two or three times.
"The other reality points are this England side can do some things better than we can, and we need to make sure we improve in those areas so we at least get on similar ground to them. There are teams out there well and truly capable beating us, and it's about us making sure we've done all the homework we need do.
"Our preparation is key. If we make it bone deep as we talk about we give ourselves the opportunity of turning up Saturday in a mental and physical state that allows us to play well. We're not a bad team when we turn up like that."
Hansen was also buying none of the England will be pushovers talk that has accompanied Stuart Lancaster's below-strength squad for the first test. He called them "the most improved side in world rugby in the last 18 months", and they shape as the ideal starting point now that full stop has been drawn.
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