Two of the All Blacks’ greatest captains think Rugby World Cup playoff experience will play in their old team’s favour in Saturday’s semifinal against England.
Sean Fitzpatrick, who captained the All Blacks 62 times, has spent some of this week with the squad in Tokyo.
“They’re in good shape, but they know the challenge on Saturday is immense,” Fitzpatrick said.
“To beat England they will have to play very well but I’m very comfortable.”
That comfort comes from history. The All Blacks haven’t lost a World Cup match since the quarter final in 2007, a run of 18 wins, and are through to the semifinals for a record eighth time.
Eleven of the 23 named to play England were at the last World Cup and 17 of the 23 have played 30 or more tests – a number Sir Graham Henry always thought was significant.
They are coming off a big win against Ireland and the euphoria of that needs to be put behind them so they are ready again for England.
That’s easier said than done.
Richie McCaw, who captained the All Blacks to consecutive World Cup titles, says they struggled with that in 2015 when they thrashed France in the quarterfinals and had a tight win over South Africa in the semifinal.
And four years earlier they had a big win against Australia in the semifinal then struggled to beat France in the final.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do in sport, to back up big performance after big performance,” McCaw said.
“The big thing is being able to put together three good games in a row and not drop your standard even a little bit.”
Fitzpatrick, who won the World Cup in 1987, lost in the semifinal to Australia in 1991 and then lost the final against South Africa in 1995, wonders if England can do that.
“That’s the challenge. There are not many teams that can play three knockout games in a row and win a World Cup.
“The All Blacks have done that and there are players in this team who have experienced that. There’s no one in the England team who has experienced that.
“It’s not easy to win three big games in a row. The All Blacks can do it. Can England do it? That’s the big question mark.”
It’s a question, or variations of it, that bounced around the All Blacks team-naming press conference as coach Steve Hansen was asked to respond to some of Eddie Jones’ jibes.
He said the spying claims weren’t aimed at the All Blacks and had given them a bit of a chuckle.
But he also poured the pressure back on Jones and his team when he noted they hadn’t made it this far at the last World Cup as they’d failed to get out of their pool.
It comes after Jones said the pressure on the All Blacks, as they push for a third consecutive title, would have mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka working overtime this week.
“We know we’re under pressure,” Hansen said. “We don’t need Eddie to tell us that.
“He needs to work out what England is going to do with the pressure they’re under. They’ll have memories about a tournament four years ago that didn’t go that good, so they’ll be under immense pressure themselves.
“To say that they’ve got nothing to lose, Eddie doesn’t believe that either. They’ve built themselves up for four years to do this job. How you deal with it in the moment will be crucial.”
The verbal jousting has had little, if any, impact on the players.
“No, not at all,” All Blacks captain Kieran Read said. “Don’t read it. Don’t really care.”
Read will be part of a loose trio that has Scott Barrett starting at blindside flanker for the first time in a test having come on there at halftime against Ireland and, perhaps more importantly, in the 52nd minute against England last year.
He made a mess of the England lineout at Twickenham and it is that pressure (there’s that word again) that he is expected to exert again on Saturday.
“Obviously it’s strategic,” Hansen said. “Sam Cane is playing lovely rugby. However we’ve made some decisions around what we want to do and how we want to play and we’ve made that change because of it.”
The challenge for Barrett is to do from the outset on Saturday what he achieved against tired players in the past.
Jones has made a strategic change to his side, too, with George Ford recalled at first-five, pushing Owen Farrell out one place.
“Every game we have a look at the conditions, the opposition, what we think we need to do, what we need to take away from the opposition, and this is the best fit for us,” Jones said.
“Horses for courses. We just feel it’s the right combination this week.”
Whether it’s a winning combination will be known when the hot air dissipates and the rugby takes over.
Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Reserves: Dane Coles, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett.
Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola.
Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler, Dan Cole, George Kruis, Mark Wilson, Willi Heinz, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph.