Thursday, November 26, 2009

Emotion the key as All Blacks approach the final obstacle
By TOBY ROBSON in Marseille -

High emotion is starting to seep into the buildup to Sunday's test between the All Blacks and France.

How it is managed will go a long way to deciding the result.

It is not deliberate, but the mood of what is shaping as an epic match has taken on a palpable feel three days out from the clash.

The theme this week has been on freshening up, ironing out the bumps and resting the weary legs four weeks into the tour.

Yesterday, a group of players escaped to Avignon to do some sightseeing, others went shopping, or moped about the hotel.

But by day's end there were subtle, but tell-tale signs that the switch is about to be flicked.
Brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. Mannerisms became agitated.

The challenge for All Blacks coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith is to get their timing right.

Earlier in the season the side found it was too pumped early in the week and hit the down slope on match day.

The pedal was eased off at the back end of the Tri-Nations and it seems to have worked.
This week's not so easy. The players arrived weary from three weeks' travel and a physical battle with England.

Bodies are sore. Minds are wandering to family and friends back home. It is for most the home stretch. But just as the senses are lagging, the All Blacks must lift a gear for one last mighty effort.

It is a balancing act. Push too hard and the legs will be gone with 20 minutes of the test season to go. Don't push hard enough and the French will blast you off the park with their passion before halftime.

"There's no silver bullet for this situation," Henry said. "You play five tests in five weeks and travel around the world in doing it and back and forth to the UK it's a major and the boys are feeling the effects of that right now."

But Henry also knows it won't wash with the New Zealand public.

"If we don't win we've had an average year. If we do win it's been OK. OK is better than average," he deadpanned.

The old master is under no illusions how important this match is and yesterday he may have given a glimpse into his pre-test speech.

"To go through Europe and have that test record unbeaten would be a marvellous achievement," he said noting that South Africa and Australia have failed to match the All Blacks' record in the north for several years.
"We are proud of what we've done on this tour," Henry continued. "The whole side would like to hang in and do the business and add some icing this week.
"Maybe that won't happen, but I'm proud of what the guys are trying to achieve, their togetherness, their tenacity and their determination to play well for the All Blacks and their legacy."

It was emotive stuff, perhaps a dress rehearsal of sorts.

The message is clear. The All Blacks have their backs to the wall.

They are tired, sore and homesick and in hostile territory. Now they must stand as one and fulfil the legacy of the jersey on their backs.

Two years ago the All Blacks bowed out of the Rugby World Cup, to France.

One of the astounding comments after that tournament was that the coaches did not push the emotional button before that match. Henry is too smart to make the same mistake twice. His decision this time around is not if, but when he decides to tug on his players' heartstrings.

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