Monday 5 December 2016

'We weren't under any illusions that they were not going to be that good' - All Black's star's praise for Ireland

Published 15/11/2016 | 02:30

Sam Whitelock, left, and Richie McCaw, New Zealand, in action against Cian Healy back in 2013
Sam Whitelock, left, and Richie McCaw, New Zealand, in action against Cian Healy back in 2013
Sam Whitelock at yesterday’s New Zealand press conference in Castleknock. Photo: PIARAS Ó MÍDHEACH/SPORTSFILE

The greatest team on the planet are running late. Chiefly because their status as the best team on the planet has been so recently undermined.

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And they have work to do. Lots of it.

It is the Monday morning review in the Castleknock home of the All Blacks this week.

It is safe to say that Steve Hansen is not rewinding and playing World Rugby's feting of them as the Team of the Year from the previous evening in London's Hilton Hotel.

For the greatest show on earth has so recently fluffed its lines; Saturday's 68-10 dismantling of the hapless Italians by a largely second-string crew merits barely a mention.

That review would have been necessarily brief.

This week is all about 'Takedown Two'. Revenge is a dish best served, well, any way you like it.

"It's not about revenge," demurs prop Owen Franks, swapping his studied monotone for brief expansion.

"Any time you don't perform your best and put your best effort out, there is always more for yourself really. It wasn't Ireland's fault that we played badly."

For the All Blacks, their digestive system has been upset by another few hours of reviewing the Chicago humbling. The harsh, cold facts are chilling enough.

"It was a good, honest review, which it always is," explains lock Sam Whitelock, slowly winning his personal battle to shore up the creaking New Zealand lineout that was predominantly neutered as an attacking weapon last time.

"It's good that it was honest rather than going sideways with it. There are some things we need to improve on and we are excited about heading into training this week to get started to hopefully correct some of those issues.

"We know where we should have been and fair credit to them, they played really well a couple of weeks ago and put us under pressure.

"Steve drives the review but it is a buy-in from everyone. The whole squad has to be honest with themselves first of all and their performance. So it is good to have that, I think, because that is the way you get the most learning and growth.

"If you are making the same mistake over and over again, he will tap you on the shoulder and have a quiet word or else one of the players will do it as well."

It will have been a talkative session given the amount of mistakes they made. Hansen always quotes his father's maxim that the opposition give you all your options; there were heaps of them in Chicago.

"I don't think we were caught off guard," adds Franks. "They just capitalised really well, they were good enough to capitalise on the mistakes that we made and punished us for them.

"I don't think we were under any illusions that they were not going to be that good. Because (of) the Test we played in 2013 here when they almost beat us then as well."

The lineout malfunction may be corrected if Whitelock pairs up with familiar partner Brodie Retallick, who earned crucial game-time in Rome after the concussion which forced him to miss Chicago.

"There are a lot of things we have to improve upon from Chicago and that is one of them," admits Whitelock. "But it is right across the board, you can't just focus on one thing or else other stuff may fall away. You have to be aware of it but you cannot be obsessed by it.

Even though New Zealand won their fair share of possession on their own ball as they chased the game, the fact that it predominantly went to the front hindered the potential for any off-the-top attack in wider channels.

"Yeah, quality lineout ball is always the best you can get. We have to come up with a good plan and go from there."

As for the rest of the line-up, Aaron Smith, despite TJ Perenara's obvious credentials, and Beauden Barrett are likely to return as the playmakers - notwithstanding Aaron Cruden's impressive form - while Ben Smith will fend off wing Israel Dagg's challenge to his full-back role.

The midfield of Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa made the most of Saturday's admittedly dubious audition against Conor O'Shea's men, especially if 2013 heart-breaker Ryan Crotty remains crocked.

That duo appear to be the strongest option with the rest of the side presumably being offered another redemptive opportunity.

At the very least, they do have this next chance to wipe the muddied slate clean after Ireland dirtied their once blemish-free 18-match streak. Time to start again.

"We expect Ireland to perform really well like they did the last time, especially at home with a huge Irish crowd. They are always going to be really good," Franks added.

"They have the monkey off their back and for them the ultimate would be to back it up. That then is the sign of a really good team.

"There is pressure on us to perform better than we did the last time and better as individuals. There is always pressure and that is what you play for.

"It was really fortunate for us after the last performance to get another shot.

"In our performance environment, where you have so many guys who want to be the best they can, it is always going to be a critical review.

"Even when you're winning. It's obviously a little bit worse because of the game that we have lost. But we are used to criticism and getting the finger pointed at you, so to speak."

So it's all about showing up, says the man from the TV expecting, but in vain, a TV answer.

"Yep," Franks mutters. "That." Then he adds, helpfully, "Showing up." The privileged pressure of the greatest.

Irish Independent

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