All Blacks relaxed, refreshed for Bledisloe test
There's a spring in the step of the record-chasing All Blacks as they prepare for a Bledisloe Cup opener of monumental proportions - a situation assistant coach Ian Foster takes as a very good sign indeed.
After the constraints of June, when three tests are indecently squeezed in three-quarters of the way through a Super Rugby campaign, Foster feels likes the leisurely week and a half build up to Saturday's Sydney showcase is almost luxurious in comparison.
"It feels completely different," Foster said today after a productive training hitout on a sunny winter's day in Auckland. "I was feeling that today on the training park. It felt like the guys were fresh, bouncing around rather than us dragging them around the park, and you feel a real freshness in the attitude.
"It's a physical and mental thing - they know now there's just one job to do, and it's to get back in black and do it well."
A good chunk of the All Blacks have even had time to rest and recover from their exertions and those that haven't - namely the Crusaders - have come in pretty determined to atone for the Super Rugby final defeat to the Waratahs.
But Foster was yesterday eager to play down any relevance around the Crusaders' defeat to the Waratahs at the same ground where Saturday's Bledisloe contest will take place.
"I've got no doubt there will be little bit of that deep inside them, but it's not visible to us," the All Blacks assistant coach said. "We've discussed that on the first day but it's a new camp, a new level and new challenge.
"All I'm seeing is those guys are invigorated by what we need them to do. Certainly going back to Sydney I guess for some there's going to be a little bit of hardening of their attitude but we'd expect that anyway."
Foster also wasn't buying the theory that there were spinoffs for the Wallabies from the Waratahs' last-gasp victory over the Crusaders.
"You could debate that maybe it's boosted a bit of confidence," he said. "But the Wallabies is a different environment, international rugby is different from Super Rugby, and they are a couple of significant variables that are different.
"The step from Super Rugby to international rugby we think is a significant step and we've got to make sure it is on Saturday night."
Foster confirmed all his troops were fit and healthy in the wake of Friday's 80-minute hitout against North Harbour and Northland. Blues utility forward Steven Luatua took the worst battering - a hyper-extended elbow his worst affliction - but was expected to take a full part in the week's buildup.
Asked if the coaches had felt the need to reiterate what the Bledisloe Cup meant given the All Blacks have held the giant trophy for 11 years, Foster indicated no stone was left unturned on that front.
"We certainly talk about the Bledisloe," he said. "It's a highly significant trophy for us. It's a special one. When you've got the message from the other side of the Tasman about how important it is to get it back after all this time, it just shows us how meaningful it is.
"Yes, we've discussed it; and, yes, it's something we want and means a lot to us."
Foster was giving nothing away ahead of what should be a straight-forward starting XV announcement on Thursday, admitting they had "plenty of options" in a back-three mix studded with form players.
Equally problematic in terms of deciding which three of Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Charles Piutai deserved to start, was the outside backs overage on the bench without Dan Carter there covering 12.
"It just changes the way we see things," Foster said. "Having Dan covering 12 means we can have a slightly different option on the bench. It does change things."
What doesn't change is what they expect from Ewen McKenzie's buoyant Wallabies who have won their last seven tests on the bounce and fancy their chances of ending the All Blacks' own run of 17 straight victories - one short of the outright record.
"They've got a nice balance to their game. They don't kick much, they're more of a retention team. When they do kick they try to make it meaningful either because they're under a lot of pressure or for tactical reasons."