Wednesday 23 October 2019

Cian Tracey: 'The unique aura around the All Blacks remains as strong as ever'

Huge levels of expectation sit comfortably on this New Zealand side as they chase treble

New Zealand’s assistant coach Ian Foster, alongside Beauden Barrett, insists that the Kiwis are not the source of all good ideas. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
New Zealand’s assistant coach Ian Foster, alongside Beauden Barrett, insists that the Kiwis are not the source of all good ideas. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Beware the giddy All Blacks who, despite carrying huge expectations, are primed for a tilt at winning a record third World Cup on the bounce.

With the Ireland squad having a day off yesterday, it provided an opportunity to get a breather from the grey surrounds in Chiba and make the short hop into central Tokyo where New Zealand and Japan are holding press conferences.

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It's also where the Kiwis are based and their luxurious hotel befits their status in the game, even if they are currently ranked as the second best team in the world - behind Ireland, of course.

As is the case every time they rock up in Ireland, we find the All Blacks in relaxed form. There is no sense that they are just four days out from a mammoth opening task against the Springboks. It's not the greatest squad they have ever assembled, but that's no reason to be lured into a false sense of security.

The unique aura around the All Blacks remains as strong as ever and 40 minutes in the company of assistant coach Ian Foster - and five of his players - is enough to confirm that.

More than any other rugby nation, the Kiwi public expects and having relinquished their Rugby Championship crown to this weekend's opponents there is even more pressure on them to deliver in Japan.

What is clear from the New Zealand, Ireland and Japan camps is that all three have very different moods. However, the theme that unites them all is that each team is coached by a Kiwi.

New Zealand's influence is stamped all over this World Cup, as it was four years ago. Seven of the competing sides are led by Kiwis, while another two have New Zealanders in key coaching positions.

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In Ireland, we have seen first-hand the influence Joe Schmidt has had on the game and not just with the national team.

Standards have been driven in all four provinces since Schmidt landed on these shores nine years ago.

With the All Blacks chasing a third consecutive Word Cup, it is hardly a surprise that every other nation is scrutinising their successful ways.

"The world is getting smaller in terms of ideas," Foster suggests.

"There are quite a number of Kiwi coaches in this World Cup alone and Kiwi-born players.

"There is a lot of changing and a lot of ideas that you think are yours but they pop up somewhere else.

"I guess we have had to make sure that we take some ideas from there and bring them back to here, so I don't think we are the source of all good ideas.

"But there has certainly been a levelling in terms of the IP (intellectual property) of the game across the world. And that's forced us to make sure that what we are doing now is what this group needs from us.

"It's that cutting edge and whether it's the most innovative or the best executed, you make your decision. But that's what we are looking for."

From a player's point of view, wearing the famous black jersey comes with a heavy burden. Some thrive under the pressure, others crumble.

He may have won 38 caps for the All Blacks, but this is very much new territory for Anton Lienert-Brown who is asked when he first dreamed of pulling on the jersey and he simply replies: "Em, when I could first dream."

Classy centre Lienert-Brown insists the honour of playing at a World Cup is not one he takes lightly.

"I know definitely for me there's always pressure on an All Blacks jersey. We're always expected to perform, and expected not just to win but to win well. I've felt that since day one that I've been in here.

Pressure

"You can definitely feel a little bit of added pressure, but I know that being in this environment for a while now that the pressure is always there and we don't just get that from the outside, within we put that pressure on ourselves because we want to perform at the highest level."

That sense of nervousness coming into such a demanding environment is understandable, even for old hands like Ben Smith and Aaron Smith.

The latter is relaxed in front of the media and despite his light-hearted approach, a serious side comes out when he explains that he has been covering the tattoos on his arms to fit in with the Japanese culture.

"We just gotta respect that and adapt. As All Blacks we are grateful to be here. We don't want to act like anything bigger than we are."

Make no mistake about it, behind the laid-back demeanour remains the same steely toughness that has always made New Zealand the team to beat.

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