There’s no rest for the wicked and no room for error for an All Blacks team with the unfamiliar challenge of a do-or-die pool stage clash.
The gravity of the situation has certainly not been lost on the team as tempers appear to have flared in an intense training session during the team’s bye week in Bordeaux.
Two historic losses against South Africa and France have no doubt added an edge to the camp, with both those recent performances leaving much to be desired from the three-time world champions.
The common theme is an inaccurate forward pack; penalties conceded in the scrum and lineout are accompanied by turnovers lost at the breakdown as pressing concerns for the team.
All areas will need to be addressed before the All Blacks’ pivotal round four Test against Italy.
Reports would suggest the forwards are feeling the pinch too, as wing Will Jordan alluded to when speaking to media on Thursday.
“This is a key week for us to grow our game and try a few things,” Jordan said. “When you get everyone competing for spots, it always riles the intensity up. It was a good hitout today, and the forwards by the sounds of it were going hammer and tongs.”
Halfback Aaron Smith was also happy to see the intensity ramp up.
“When there’s not a game at the end of the week, you can have more intensity in training,” he said.
“It was nice to get out in the sun, tuck some running under the legs, but also good contact and load.
“Having 30-odd players going hammer and tongs is fun. Tempers and emotions get up. But if you can build that resilience and hardness against your mates, it puts you in good stead later.”
The intensity of the forwards’ training session was attested to by All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod, who made no secret of the intent in the group.”
“The boys were blowing towards the end,” said McLeod. “We felt as though we could get a fair bit of work into them, particularly in the areas around our skillset and some discipline work.
“So we pushed them quite hard in that space. There might have been a couple of pushes and shoves going on, which was good. It was intense stuff – short transitions, physicality up and we’re running them a little bit more as well.”
All signs point to healthy competition within the team, with question marks over selections due to health and a two-game suspension being served by prop Ethan de Groot.
The tough trainings aren’t likely to ease up either, as the coaches intend to push the intensity to somewhat simulate in-game pressure and test the players’ accuracy.
“We reviewed hard. What are some consistent things that we want to work on? We’ve done that today, but on Friday we’re really going to push the boat out in terms of some pressure-on scenarios where we haven’t executed as well as we could have.”
In terms of reviewing, as the World Cup progresses, trends are becoming clearer and as many teams have mentioned in the lead-up to the tournament, the side that adapts and grows the most throughout the competition will likely lift the Webb Ellis Cup on October 28 in Paris.
“We found referees are rewarding the breakdown 60% to the defence. So that’s a big shift (compared to the Rugby Championship). If you’re winning the race to the ball and getting your hands on, they’re rewarding the defence a little bit more.
“What we’ve been working on is getting our tackler out. They’re really hot on that. So if we can get him out and still win that race… Other teams that are kicking a lot have been winning. It’s an area that we’re talking about as coaches; what does that mean for us and how do we do that smarter?
“From the way France kicked and the way we dealt with that, other teams will want to do that. It’s an area we’re working on.
“It showed in the last World Cup as well. South Africa kicked the crap out of it, it worked for them, and I imagine they might look to do the same. Northern Hemisphere teams want to kick the ball – so we’ve got to be ready for that.”
While Italy have never beaten the All Blacks, the team’s form has been trending very positively and the threat of a first-ever victory is as real as ever after Azzurri wins over Australia and Wales in 2022.
“They’re playing a different pattern to anyone else,” McLeod said. “They’re wanting to get the ball into the middle very quickly and then have a lot of numbers to swing around. It’s similar to France, but they’ve got more structure. They play with LQB – lightning quick ball – and their skill level has gone up through the forwards and backs.”