All Blacks forwards preparing for final battle
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will go to the well one more time as he asks his tight forwards to set the tone for the final test of the year.
Big, durable men like Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock and Sam Whitelock have been the backbone of the All Blacks' unbeaten season.
Lock Whitelock is the only All Black to have been involved in all 13 tests to date, while props Franks and Woodcock have played all but one.
They will be asked for one last push, literally, at Twickenham on Sunday (NZT) where Hansen believes the set piece will set the tone.
"This English side, their tight head Dan Cole is about as good as you will get," Hansen said today. "He's up with the best in the world and the young hooker [Tom Youngs] has converted [from centre] to hooker, so it'll be interesting to see how he scrums.
"They have a mentality that they want to scrum and they want to be good at the set piece in conditions they've been suffering the last couple of weeks which is conducive to having good forward play."
Hooker Keven Mealamu (calf) and prop Woodcock (bruised leg) will need to get through training tomorrow, but are expected to be named in the front row alongside Franks for the final test of the year.
Woodcock continues to cement himself as one of the All Blacks finest props, while Franks has also become a no-brainer selection for Hansen as the season has progressed.
That's because the 24-year-old has done his core role so well at scrum time and slowly but surely added to his game around the park.
"He's [Franks] in great nick," Hansen said. "He enjoys playing and he's one of those guys who goes better when he plays all the time. I have a huge amount of confidence in him and he's gotten better as the year's gone on.
"He wasn't that happy with his form in Super Rugby [for the Crusaders] and I think we've seen him get better."
A sign of that came in Cardiff where Franks found himself at first receiver following a magical counter attack from outsides Israel Dagg and Julian Savea.
He calmly performed the catch and pass many props might have struggled with as the ball was transferred wide to Liam Messam for the try of the year.
"I don't get in that role too often, so when the opportunity arises, it's good to be able to do your job and help other guys out," Franks offered this week. "The whole team is working hard on their skills and not just their primary roles, you try to cover most things."
There was nothing planned about the No 3 ending up at first five eighth, but an emphasis on ball skills at training meant he was comfortable in the role.
It's difficult to get any sort of self-praise out of the All Blacks front row club, but Franks managed, through gritted teeth, to acknowledge things aren't going too badly up front.
"We've given our backs pretty good ball to work off, that's our main goal. We're just doing our job," he said.
Franks, whose form was questioned during the Crusaders campaign, was most pleased that he'd been able to steadily add to his game throughout the year.
"Rugby's a bit like that. Huge highs and a few lows. It's about continually working hard all season. I think I've done that pretty well this year," he said.
"I've built my game to a pretty good level that I'm happy with at the moment. I just want to do my job on Saturday, bring some good physicality and energy."
Hansen is not expected to make many changes to the side that beat Wales although first five eighth Dan Carter will come in if he has recovered from a lower leg strain, while hooker Andrew Hore was ruled out due to his five week suspension for striking.