Hansen, All Blacks primed for Wallaby challenge

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
Steve Hansen
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
ON THE RISE: All Black coach Steve Hansen expects the Wallabies to be a force in the Rugby Championship.

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Between now and next year's World Cup defence, the All Blacks are honest enough to admit that, on the balance of probability and with increasingly quality opposition, at some point they may lose. And if the ruthless rugby public can afford themselves the same sincere assessment they, too, will acknowledge a defeat would not end life as we know it.

After all, most sports teams learn more from failure than success.

Still, neither party wants such an event to occur this week in Sydney.

Fourteen months ago the All Blacks began their remarkable 17-test winning streak. What a ride it has been. In that time they've maintained a flawless five-year home record and beaten every possible genuine contender.

There's been some staggering escapes - Aaron Cruden's sideline conversion on the second attempt in Dublin the most notable.

That run also includes one of the greatest all time tests; the epic win at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. The plane; the atmosphere, the occasion. It was something else.

To claim the world record outright, one final push is required against a Wallabies team oozing self-belief following the Waratahs' Super Rugby triumph last weekend. Talk about a Hollywood script. All it needs now is another Stephen Donald recall.

"It's important to the team and the individuals within the team," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen tells the Sunday Star-Times of the world record pursuit.

"We've acknowledged that it's something we'd like to achieve, but we understand it's the result of us doing what we have to from Sunday to Saturday really well against a team that will be full of confidence.

"We want to win the test match because it's against Australia, it's for the Bledisloe Cup and it would give us 18 wins, but the most important thing is preparing well."

Win, lose or draw there's a theory this test marks a turning point of sorts. Either way, the All Blacks will reach the landmark, or miss their chance.

The magnitude of such a potential achievement could be seen an added weight on collective shoulders. Not that this team doesn't already contend with unrivalled expectations and internal and external pressures, as we discovered from the "greatest ever" whiteboard goal.

Yet Hansen appears relaxed, seemingly comfortable in the mindset that if his management and leadership team stick to their well-worn practices and principals, the rest will take care of itself.

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"I don't see it as a line in the sand because the next week we have to do the same thing. This team is expected to win all its games.

"Realistically we know we'll get beaten at some point, but we're going to do our damndest to make sure we prepare well enough so that becomes hard work for the opposition.

"It's not a burden. I find it interesting that people think winning is a burden. Winning is actually pretty satisfying, but it takes a lot of hard work and reality. Everybody in your group needs to be on the same page.

"We know we could have easily been beaten in two or three test matches in the last year but we found a way and got there. We're not sitting here saying we're not beatable at all. We're just saying we're going to work hard and prepare well. That's our MO [modus operandi] and if we get that right, we've got a bit of talent and we are hard to beat."

Which brings us to the Wallabies; masters of pesky timing.

In the last 30 tests against the All Blacks they've been second-class, winning only five. Ironically, though, twice in the past five years the cocky kids halted the All Blacks' quest for records.

James O'Connor's conversion proved the killer blow in Hong Kong; the draw in Brisbane just before the World Cup - Keven Mealamu's 100th test no less - produced the other slip-up.

John Eales, Toutai Kefu, George Gregan - the list of heartbreak Wallabies lives on.

"Australia are one of our major opponents. They're a team we respect immensely," Hansen says. "During those periods they've always been capable of having performances that's good enough to beat us. When you reflect back on the times they have it's about looking at what we didn't do. They're a very capable side."

Fourteen years ago these great rivals played out another doozey in front of 106,000 that required a basketball-style Taine Randell pass and Jonah Lomu try to steal it at the death.

Perhaps this test is set up for something similar. Accomplishing such a feat against these men would only be fitting. Not even then will Hansen reflect. Work would still need to be done.

"My point is when you're in the fight it's all about just getting ready for this one test. The time for reflecting and being proud is when you finish."

- Sunday Star Times

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