Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 September 2014

All Blacks remain the most prized scalp of all

PAUL ACKFORD

Published 04/11/2012 | 05:00

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It begins this Friday when Russia get to grips with America in Colwyn Bay, Wales, and ends 22 days later when England square up to New Zealand at Twickenham and Wales take on Australia at the Millennium Stadium.

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The contests bookend a feast of international rugby in which 23 countries play 30 Tests to establish the top seeds for the 2015 World Cup. Just over a year since the most recent World Cup when there were 40 pool games, it seems that a smaller satellite event has crept up almost unnoticed.

Too much Test rugby on the international calendar diminishing the product? It's hard to argue otherwise, especially with Australia and New Zealand squeezing in meaningless additional Bledisloe Cup matches.

That said, there is no denying the growing excitement at this time of year as the giants of the southern hemisphere head north. Australia and South Africa may be hanging on grimly at the end of a long season after a series of cataclysmic injuries for the Wallabies and a dip in form for the Boks earlier in the Rugby Championship, but they still sit proudly above the leading European nations in the world rankings. Supremacy is what matters here.

In 2010, the last time the big three toured, Scotland against South Africa was the only other success to accompany England's victory over the Wallabies. Wales lost all three of their contests, England two out of three, Ireland were beaten by South Africa and New Zealand, and France were given a 59-16 shellacking by Australia. The final tally read: Northern hemisphere played 11, won 2. Daunting.

Stuart Lancaster was ramming that message home last week. As his squad trained at St George's Park, the Football Association's impressive centre, the England coach was talking about the last 20 minutes of games. That is when New Zealand kill off most of their opponents, and that is why Lancaster and Wales are placing a huge emphasis on conditioning. When Lancaster replaced Martin Johnson he jotted down three priorities. The first two involved establishing an appropriate culture and getting the technical and tactical framework in place, and he believes he is making, and has made, substantial progress in those areas. The third was improving fitness levels, which is one of England's focuses this autumn.

Shaun Edwards, Wales' defensive coach, is of similar persuasion. He points out that players run a kilometre further in an international match than a club game and that the ball is in play 15 per cent longer. The best teams are more intense and precise at specific elements. New Zealand, for instance, clear twice as many rucks inside three seconds as Wales, Ireland and France, which is why Wales have again travelled to Poland to benefit from cryotherapy sessions. Time spent in the deep-freeze chambers speeds recovery and allows for more training which in turn should allow for better conditioned, more efficient, more technically astute athletes.

Or so the theory goes. The reality can be different. When England met up for their first proper get-together since the summer, training was only one of a number of items which had to be addressed.

Also on the densely packed schedule were orientation sessions to re-focus the squad; 15-minute one-on-one meetings between Lancaster and each player; addresses by Will Greenwood and Bradley Wiggins on what it takes physically to be a champion; seminars on codes of conduct, the minutiae of the agreement which governs the elite players and obligations to sponsors; technical feedback from England's specialist coaches; fitness testing; medical assessments and recovery therapy after the weekend matches; media commitments; memorabilia signing blocks for charities and corporate partners and -- wait for it -- suit fittings for the players so that they are nattily dressed for the challenges ahead. The players arrived on Sunday evening and left on Thursday afternoon. It's a wonder they got near a rugby ball.

Is all that part and parcel of professional and commercial sporting life?

Perhaps, although there are plenty of diehards around who consider that the circus which accompanies international rugby teams is far too bloated and unwieldy, and that a back-to-basics campaign where players are encouraged to think, and do, for themselves is long overdue. One of the paradoxes of modern Test rugby is that the coaches who cloak themselves in layer upon layer of detail and analysis also preach how essentially simple rugby is.

And maybe that is the factor behind New Zealand's success.

However they may like to perpetuate the mystique, their approach rarely wavers. Get your fair share of first-phase ball, find a way to win the collisions, use space effectively, keep the error rate low and be strong mentally. It is not predicated on complicated defensive patterns, or a particularly dominant scrum or line-out, or a sophisticated attacking strategy. It is built around good players doing the simple things well.

The advantage they have over the rest of the world is a tradition which demands excellence and a present which allows players to spend huge chunks of time in each other's company, enabling new men to slot seamlessly into systems. The All Blacks never seem to be rebuilding. They never seem to require time to allow youngsters to develop.

They always arrive fully formed and firing.

Successful Test dynasties are not about a small coterie of great players any more. As the attrition rate grows, fielding the same 15 guys for four consecutive games is impossible. It is not the men but the machine that matters, endlessly churning out individuals who know what to do and when to do it. England are nowhere near that point. In fact, of the European contenders, only Wales, with two Grand Slams in five seasons, are even close to achieving the required consistency. The rest lurch unsteadily between acceptable and inadequate.

So, once again, it looks as if the northern hemisphere countries are fighting a rearguard action as far as New Zealand are concerned. One of Wales, England and Scotland might get lucky, but it will be a significant surprise if the Blacks lose a brace of games. As for the other two big southern hemisphere noises? Australia and South Africa are far more vulnerable to getting picked off. England should defeat both and Wales should pip Australia to bring a month-long extravaganza to a close. But it is the boys in black who are the big challenge. Can anyone take down the world champions?

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