NZPA - (31/10/2009)
Phase two of the rugby year starts tomorrow for Richie McCaw's All Blacks, who says his side are on edge and desperate to maintain their high standards from Wellington.
The fourth Bledisloe test, a predicted sellout in the 48,000-capacity National Stadium, provides the segue from a season including four test defeats, to the European tour where Wales, Italy, England and their June conquerors France loom.
McCaw, whose side hold a clear advantage with six straight wins against coach Robbie Deans' Wallabies, rejected any thoughts of his side struggling for motivation at the scene of Peter Snell's double Olympic golds in 1964.
"Both teams are in similar situations. We've got a pretty tough six weeks ahead and it'll be tough if we don't have a good start so we're pretty keen to do that," McCaw said."We've got a few new guys who are excited to be here and there's a whole different feel to the group. We're pretty keen to put the first part of the year behind us and build on that last performance. There's definitely a bit of edge there."
The 33-6 win over the Wallabies in Wellington six weeks ago was clearly their best performance of the year and coach Graham Henry rewarded them with a largely unchanged side here, while he reshuffled the coaching roles with Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen.
Of the three changes, previously injured frontliners Conrad Smith and Sitiveni Sivivatu return to a first-choice backline while 60-test No 8 Rodney So'oialo won a reprieve ahead of Kieran Read whose lack of recent matchplay counted against him.
Henry stressed pre-tour that selections would be performance-based had provided a further motivation tomorrow for the likes of one-test lock Tom Donnelly.
"That last test we had a couple of changes and that created a bit of edge," McCaw said."The coach has said that the team will be picked each week on how guys go. There's a good sort of edge and there's competition there."
McCaw said a 4-0 sweep of the Wallabies would be a "significant" achievement.
It would also stretch their winning run to seven, their equal second-best against the Wallabies, matching the run of 1995-97 and trailing only the nine straight wins between 1936-49.
Deans' side suffered a blow last night with vice-captain Berrick Barnes ruled out after he rolled his ankle at training.
It saw a late reshuffle, with Adam Ashley-Cooper moving from fullback to second five-eighth and teenager James O'Connor returning to fullback after being dropped in the wake of some recent shaky efforts.
"It'd be nice to put him under some pressure," said McCaw, who rated Barnes a significant loss which would take away a kicking option and perhaps strengthen the view that the Wallabies would go for all-out attack.
They haven't crossed the All Blacks' line for 236 minutes of playing time and Deans' coaching is under the microscope for the first time in Australia.
McCaw was also surprised at the absence of 105-test veteran George Smith, who was benched for the loose forward trio of Wycliff Palu, David Pocock and new captain Rocky Elsom, who will be tasked with improving their ordinary work at the breakdown in Wellington.
"It surprised me a little bit... it's probably a good thing for us," McCaw said.
The National Stadium surface was rated hard and fast which should promote an open, running contest, although the in-goal areas were largely astroturf, which both sides were taking a keen interest in.
On the prospect of promoting rugby in Japan by hurling the ball around and making it a spectacle, McCaw wouldn't exactly concur.
"From a team's point of view that's not something we're thinking about. It'd be nice to come off having won and having put together a performance we're happy with. In that case it'd be a pretty good game to watch."
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