No excuses for the All Blacks in final test
LIAM NAPIER IN NEW PLYMOUTH
Cast your mind back 12 months to the All Blacks' thrashing of Ireland in Hamilton.
A similar, if slightly less emphatic, statement than the 60-0 pasting could be brewing in New Plymouth tonight.
After three weeks together, the All Blacks' understanding of their game plan and each other is three times better than when they first assembled. Expect that to be reflected in their performance.
From Auckland to Christchurch, coach Steve Hansen's men dramatically improved. The trend should continue against the French, who appear to be out on their feet at the end of a 10-month season.
There are no excuses for the All Blacks, who will field one of their oldest backlines in test history, featuring a combined age of 200 years. Fullback Israel Dagg, 25, is the youngest, but not the least experienced.
While the Dave Gallaher trophy is safely locked away and there has not been the same edge to the All Blacks' trainings in miserable conditions, competition for places is a powerful motivator. And there is plenty within this squad.
This test carries great importance for halfback Piri Weepu and blindside flanker Victor Vito.
"The only outcome we are after is 3-0," captain Kieran Read said yesterday.
"It's been a challenging week with the weather and things, but we've got guys coming in who are really excited.
"That just adds a little spark to the rest of the group. We're in a good space."
Welcoming back Dan Carter, the world's best first five-eighth, to chase a series sweep is a luxury no other nation could contemplate.
His classy qualities were evident at training this week when he took the ball to the line and fooled his team-mates.
After two weeks out with a broken hand, Carter is one of many demanding excellence in his 95th test.
"It's very important. That's something we've talked about," the 31-year-old said.
"We want to get better each game. It's still early days in the season,;only our third test.
"We've had another week together, worked on a lot of combinations and know our game plan better. It's really important we sign off this series on a high."
For the French, being held scoreless last week was a massive physiological blow.
Les Bleus threw everything at the All Blacks' defiant defence and came away with nothing.
The tourists have since lost their best performer, impressive No 8 Louis Picamoles, and with only pride to play for must have one eye on the flight home.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre will be craving early points, or this could turn ugly.
"We could be coming here at one-one," French captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "But we still come here and do our best to win.
"Maybe physically we are not as strong as we were three weeks ago."
Of course, nothing is a given with the French. If they get a sniff of an unlikely upset, plans for Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau and Matt Todd could be derailed.
Hansen, ideally, wants some breathing space before introducing his three rookies.
Boosting his three-match unbeaten captaincy record before passing the baton to Richie McCaw will also be on Read's agenda.
His uncle Bill, the groundsman at Yarrow Stadium, no doubt shared a quiet word at their family dinner about delivering the proud province a fitting result in their first taste of professional rugby for over eight months.
"He certainly wants me to do the business," Read said. "He doesn't want to be known as the ground that lost a test match."
If the All Blacks get comfortable, don't discount some experimentation. That could include Rene Ranger in the midfield and, possibly, Piutau on the wing.
Striking a balance between their running and kicking game will be top of the to-do list.
The French will surely be more awake at the back, which could spark some creativity from Carter and company.
If the patchy weather plays its part, over 23,000 fans could be in for a treat.
This is far from a dead rubber for the All Blacks.
- Fairfax Media
Which rugby player would you be most inclined to bend selection rules for?