Record winning streak looms for All Blacks
The All Blacks will equal test rugby's record win streak if they sweep England in Hamilton next Saturday - a prospect they're either embracing or ignoring, depending on who you speak to.
Today in Dunedin, as his team prepared to ship out for Hamilton having clinched the June series with a 28-27 victory at Forsyth Barr Stadium last night, coach Steve Hansen rather played down the greater significance of next weekend's finale.
But just moments later, veteran backup hooker Keven Mealamu said the world record win streak was a mark the All Blacks had to ''walk towards'' and was very much part of their thinking.
The All Blacks now have 16 consecutive test wins after back-to-back hard-fought victories over Stuart Lancaster's highly competitive England side, with the record mark of 17 shared by the All Blacks (1965-69) and South Africa (1997-98).
The New Zealanders came agonisingly close to the record under Hansen back in 2012 when they hit 16 on the bounce before being held to a draw by the Wallabies in Brisbane and got to 15 in 2010 before being tipped over by the Australians in Hong Kong.
''There hasn't been any talk about it as such from us,'' Hansen said today, no doubt eager to play down any peripheral issues.
''We're just trying to work on our own performance. If you get the wins, that's the outcome you get from working hard. We've still got a wee way to go with our game. We were happier than we were last week but there are still areas we've got to improve.''
But after blitzing England with three tries in a decisive third-quarter burst in Dunedin, the 112-cap Mealamu offered a different view to his coach.
''There's definite awareness in the group,'' he said of the record mark for test nations.
''It would be pretty special if we were able to get there. We're just trying to take care of the moment. There have been a couple of close ones the last couple of weeks so we just want to lift our performance. I thought yesterday was a step in the right direction.''
But Mealamu was not singing off Hansen's hymn sheet in terms of the group's awareness of the mark.
''It will be something we walk towards and really embrace because it hasn't been done before and it would be awesome to be the team to do it.''
To that end, Mealamu felt their experience in Hong Kong had been something they had learned from.
''Back then it was something we didn't want to talk about and tried to put on the back-burner. It's there, but we've got a couple more games before we get to that and we need to make sure we take care of that.''
Hansen confirmed crocked fullback Israel Dagg would remain out of the selection picture this week while his patella tendon heals, and Patrick Osborne would stay with the squad. He said the plan was for No 8 Kieran Read to return in Hamilton, but his readiness (head wise and fitness wise) would continue to be monitored.
Flanker Matt Todd will be the only Crusaders player released to play in Tuesday's clash against England in Christchurch, with Ryan Crotty, Dom Bird and Colin Slade all remaining with the All Blacks.
In terms of prospective changes beyond Read this week in Hamilton, Hansen was coy on his plans. Beauden Barrett is widely expected to get a crack at first five and there may be a temptation to look at one or two more of the backup brigade.
''We haven't really thought too far ahead,'' Hansen said.
''We'll sit down over the next 24 hours and make some decisions. I think it's important first and foremost we win the next test and we play well. So we'll pick the team that can do that.''
Hansen labelled the tight five's performance last night one of the better ones in recent times and lauded his young locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
''They could be the two best locks in the world at some stage ... they set the standard and other guys are trying to get there which is good for them and good for us.''
And in the wake of the stellar performance from local boy Ben Smith, who made the play of the game when he ran down Manu Tuilagi from deep just before halftime, Hansen is not fretting the selection headache he'll have when Dagg returns to full fitness.
''That was a pretty special performance last night. It's tough on Izzy because he's been playing really well too, but it's the old adage that someone gets a break and he taken it with both hands. It was pretty special.''
The All Blacks coach also hinted that right wing Cory Jane could be given another chance to atone for a couple of tests that have not exactly been copybook.
''He would have been disappointed with his first half -- he turned the ball over four times - but he came right in the second half and got himself into the game. Mentally he overcame the burden of making those early mistakes, and hopefully he comes out with a bit of confidence and we see him go up another level next week.''
The All Blacks head to Hamilton with the closeout, and maybe the streak, very much at the forefront of their minds.