By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – While much of the rugby world next month will be focussed on New Zealand’s first clash with England for four years, the eyes of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be resolutely fixed on next year’s defence of the World Cup.
Hansen has made no secret of his expectations and plans for the November test matches in Europe, with his desire to replicate as much as possible what the team will face in under 12 months’ time.
The world champions will have already spent two weeks in Japan, playing at two of the Rugby World Cup venues, before their test with England at Twickenham on Nov. 10.
Hansen has been keen for his players to get accustomed to the food, accommodation, transportation and cultural experiences they will come across in Japan next year, while each of the matches is aimed at replicating preparations for games at the global showpiece.
Last Saturday’s 37-20 victory over Australia was a dry-run for their Pool B opener against South Africa — the first time the two heavyweights have met at that stage of the World Cup.
This week’s clash against Japan in Tokyo will be used as preparation for their final pool clash against Italy before they face the knockout phases.
Those high-pressure conditions will then kick into greater focus when they face Eddie Jones’s England and Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations champions Ireland — the main northern-hemisphere challengers for the Webb Ellis trophy — in successive weeks.
England have suffered a downturn in form since the end of their 18-game winning streak in 2017 but on their day they remain a side that can beat anyone.
Of greater interest for the rugby purist might be the clash with Ireland at Lansdowne Road, particularly since the runners-up of Pool B next year could face Schmidt’s side — if they win Pool A — in the quarter-finals.
Ireland arguably control possession better than any other team in world rugby and, under New Zealander Schmidt, have developed into the most consistent performers in the test arena bar the All Blacks.
It is something the All Blacks are more than aware of and perhaps why in their game against Australia in Yokohama on Saturday they were far more composed, controlled, and to an extent conservative, than they had been for much of 2018.
They built phases, did not force too many passes and squared up their attacking lines to challenge Australia’s defence.
Despite being stretched at times by the Wallabies, especially by runners receiving an inside ball, they never looked like they were going to lose the game — doing just enough of what was needed to win.
They also did not give too much away as to how they might approach 2019 tactically, even if Beauden Barrett’s try from a scrum underlined how they can use their proficient set piece as an attacking weapon.
Crucially for Hansen ahead of the European leg of the tour, a number of senior players like Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, Sonny Bill Williams and captain Kieran Read will be relatively fresh after lengthy injury breaks this year.
The decision to call in 19 additional players for the Japan game allowed him to send a large chunk of his squad to England early should also alleviate any travel fatigue, something they will not face next year at the seven-week tournament.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)