Competitiveness keeps All Blacks on edge

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Lynn McConnell     16 Jun 2017     Getty Images

Coach Steve Hansen has faced a tough task balancing the need to get the All Blacks back on song for their first outing of the year, always a tricky operation, while keeping players focused on the immediate opponent, Samoa, and not looking around the corner to the three-Test Lions series.
"Samoa are a quality opposition, well coached with quality players so we want to start the ball rolling and get away to a good start. I know whatever we do on Friday we will be able to improve on the following week," he said on Thursday.

The Samoa Test was a late inclusion on the side's programme but it served as a welcome opportunity to put plans to the test in a competitive environment.

Hansen said the players had joined the group 'in great shape, mentally and physically' and they had been made aware of their responsibility to respect every opponent they face in keeping with the recognition of their legacy and the All Blacks jersey.

Samoa were a very good rugby team and on their day they could cause an upset so he didn't want the All Blacks being the upset, he said.

But his selection for the opening Test of the year had highlighted some of the competition among players.

The halfback decision between Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara came down to the roles the selectors wanted the halfback to play, he said, and they felt that Smith was the best passing halfback in the world.

"He's probably a little ahead of TJ at the box-kicking as well so that's what got him the start. TJ is in great form, his all-round game is great but it's just the passing which is the core role of the halfback that we feel we want for our team," he said.

In the hotly-contested midfield the selectors would be looking for fluidity and connection from their pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown. At the same time he acknowledged their ability to get that would be the result of the quality of the ball they received.

Hansen said the competition among the wings in the squad was pleasing. While Israel Dagg and Julian Savea were starting on Friday, Waisake Naholo had played well for the Highlanders against the Lions and Rieko Ioane had done well for the Blues all season and had another chance on Saturday for the Maori All Blacks.

"The two guys starting for us on Friday know they are going to have to play well because both Waisake and Rieko are in good form. It's a good place for us to be."

He said Dagg's form from last year counted for a lot, as did his play against the Lions for the Crusaders. What that game had shown the coaches was that halfback Conor Murray was going to kick the ball a lot and the All Blacks had always selected players who could catch those kicks and that would be looked at when they come to the first Lions Test.

"We've just had the opportunity to give all four of them game time in the same week which has been wonderful. Waisake stepped up to his challenge and they got a marvellous victory. It's put a spring in his step. Rieko's come off a really good game and gets a second opportunity for the Maori and the two boys playing here get an opportunity. So we'll have a really good idea after that."

Naholo's performance against the Highlanders had produced excitement the selectors had not seen from him for a while.

Looking at the Lions, Hansen said there was a clear difference between their Wednesday and Saturday teams. The game on Tuesday had been a good game of rugby, both teams had contributed to that and the result could have gone either way. He didn't think the Lions had lost too much but there was definitely a difference between the two squads and the way they were performing.

The hardest thing to do in bringing a squad together for a new campaign, as the Lions had experienced, was to merge the different patterns and structures players had been used to with their franchises.

"It takes a little while, you can't just flick your fingers and say, 'Right, we're away'.

"So if we can get through the game starting to get those connections going, getting back into the All Blacks way and play with a bit of intensity and pace with some accuracy we'll be good, and obviously keeping an eye on the scoreboard will be handy too," he said.

With three Barrett brothers, Beauden, Scott and Jordie in the match 23 there was the chance history could be created for the All Blacks when having three brothers on the field at the same time.

The brothers had similar qualities of demeanour around the side.

"The key thing I have noticed when all three brothers have come into our environment for the first time is just how relaxed they are and they have a really good ability to cope with the pressure cooker place the All Blacks is. For a lot of people it is quite overwhelming. There's a lot of scrutiny, a lot of nerves that come with it.

"The nerves are normal but it's how you deal with those nerves and all three of them have been very good so far at exhibiting the right behaviours. They seem to be guys that are very relaxed and look like they've been here for a long time. It's not an easy thing to do," he said.