Time for All Blacks to play like All Blacks
Hamilton hopes, rather than expects. So scratchy have the All Blacks been through the first two tests of this compelling series against England, it pays not to be too optimistic.
But if history, not to mention form through the last fortnight, is any guideline, it may be that the fans who pack Waikato Stadium tonight are in for a treat. Everything says we just might see Steve Hansen's team unleash their best performance of 2014 tonight.
Not that the bar is set too high. The All Blacks were awful in Auckland, fumbling and bumbling their way through 76 pretty average minutes, before finally stringing something quality together over the run home to scramble a 20-15 victory.
It was better in Dunedin last weekend, but only incrementally so. The start was sub-par and soon the All Blacks were in a 10-0 hole that took some digging out of. Only Ben Smith's brilliant defensive play late in the first half turned a potentially calamitous halftime deficit into a manageable 10-6.
Then 20 minutes of scintillating football after the break decided the contest, only for the All Blacks to button off over the final quarter to allow England two late tries and a flattering 28-27 final margin of defeat.
So, what will we see tonight?
Well, history suggests the All Blacks lift their levels through June, and, conditions permitting, we're entitled to expect something a little more sustained from the world champs tonight. They're due, that's for sure.
Plus, there's the other side of the equation. England have been very, very good through a challenging first two tests. They were well down on personnel for Auckland, then had to manage the process of introducing the players from their Premiership final for Dunedin.
To run a close second in both of those tests was creditable to say the least.
Everything tells us Stuart Lancaster is building something special with this group, not only in terms of the environment, and the talent, but with the ever-expanding nature of their game. They are legitimate threats for next year's World Cup on their home turf.
The set piece and breakdown remain their strength, but there is now an ability to play with some width when it's on. Dunedin showed the danger of taking the All Blacks on at their own fast-paced game, but as the English search for their own identity, it's clear they are now a much more well-rounded outfit than days gone by.
But we should also remember this is their November. And we all know how difficult the All Blacks find that final test of the season in the north.
With the series lost, and summer now a distinct reality, it will be a challenge for the tourists to summon one last monumental effort against an opponent who will pounce at the hint of weakness.
The All Blacks are also highly motivated, never mind that the series is decided, and Hillary Shield tucked away for another year. They can equal the record win streak (17) for test nations tonight, and are very stimulated to achieve that after a couple of near misses in recent years.
Plus, the home win streak now stands at a record 32 and that's territory these All Blacks are intent on expanding.
Then there's the pride thing - perhaps the most powerful motivator of all.
The All Blacks have many harsh critics in their own country, but none are as hard on them as they are on themselves. They know they've made too many basic errors, have given away too much ball, fallen off too many tackles and not sustained nearly enough on attack. They know they've been well short of their own high standards.
They know it's time to flex those muscles tonight.
So, who are we looking at closely? Aaron Cruden and Cory Jane spring to mind. Both are quality operators under some pressure. Cruden needs a more assured showing, especially with Dan Carter due back on deck and Beauden Barrett gaining folk hero status for his efforts off the bench.
Jane, too, must deliver something more polished on the right wing. He's been off his game and pressing too hard. He needs to take a breath, wait for his chances and then do what he does best. When Israel Dagg and Charles Piutau return, it's going to get mighty crowded in the All Black backfield.
What else? Let's not forget Kieran Read. He's been dogged by head issues this year and it will be reassuring to all New Zealanders to see the brilliant No 8 come through a tough test unscathed and unscrambled.
The scrum needs to continue to assert itself, Richie McCaw could do with taking a step up, Jerome Kaino gets to strengthen his grip on the No 6 jersey and, of course, debutant Malakai Fekitoa gets the chance to show his Super Rugby form can translate to the big stage. That midfield pairing has excitement written all over it.
But most of all Hamilton just wants to see its All Blacks play like All Blacks. And rattle off test win No 17 on the trot with more of a swagger than a stagger.
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