DANIEL GILHOOLY June 25, 2010
The usual June wobbles have been avoided with aplomb until now and All Blacks rugby captain Richie McCaw hopes it stays that way with another accomplished performance against Wales in Hamilton on Saturday night.
Seeking the ideal lead-in to the Tri-Nations, McCaw said it was important their standards did not slip in the second Test against Wales after overwhelming them 42-9 in Dunedin last Saturday, to follow a 66-28 squashing of Ireland in New Plymouth.
In the process they have scored 14 tries, a tally they didn't reach until they had played nine Tests last year, while five-eighth Daniel Carter has enjoyed a dream ride in clocking up 44 points.
Seven changes this week threaten to disrupt the flow, with several returnees out to shed rust brought on by injury breaks or non-selection.
Veteran fullback Mils Muliaina and lock Tom Donnelly are the most notable while winger Zac Guildford, centre Richard Kahui and prop Neemia Tialata were all voicing pleas of "Don't forget me" this week.
McCaw, back to his influential best along with fellow great Carter last week, said it was important to maintain the rage.
"We don't want to drop our standards just because there are changes," he said.
"We've got to have a performance which is the same, if not better. That's the way we'll judge it."
Victory will promote McCaw ahead of Sean Fitzpatrick with the most wins as a New Zealand captain but he was taking nothing for granted and expected a rejuvenated Welsh challenge which would last beyond the 50-minute fight they mounted at Carisbrook.
"They're going to be a team that's hurting so they'll come out and climb in."
With rain forecast and Muliaina and Guildford feeling their way back, All Blacks coach Graham Henry hinted at less counter attack and a more conservative approach at Waikato Stadium.
Lessons were learned from the first half last weekend, when the All Blacks struggled to decipher Wales' aggressive rush defence.
"We tried to play too much rugby in the middle of the field, around halfway," Henry said.
"We probably need to play for more territory early, then we can get more set piece and we can build a game."
Welsh opposite Warren Gatland has turned on a charm offensive this week, voicing pleasure at the hospitality towards his team in his old home town and hoping locals will get behind them when they spend two weeks in Hamilton during next year's World Cup.
Gatland sensed a better attitude from his players, who he has repeatedly stressed are desperate to earn respect in New Zealand.
"One or two have been here with the Lions (in 2005) and that wasn't a great experience for them in terms of performance and results," he said.
"Last week there was probably a bit of apprehension - 'what are we up against? We definitely know what we're up against (tomorrow) so there's no surprises about the task ahead of us.
"The boys were a bit quieter earlier in the week. Some of the players felt personally they weren't quite at their best and want to rectify it."
Gatland said veteran first five-eighth Stephen Jones was cleared today of a thumb injury and would take his place on the reserves bench behind young playmaker Dan Biggar.