By MARC HINTON in Sydney
Someone had to ask it, and when the question lobbed in Richie McCaw visibly flinched. Then the All Blacks captain delivered the perfect response.
Are the All Blacks worried that they're peaking too soon, probed the inquisitive Aussie? It's not the first time McCaw has heard this doomsday theory, nor will it be the last.But the skip was ready, and armed. He firmly believed the best was still to come from the New Zealanders, so, no, they're not concerned. Not one iota.
With the world's No 1 team perfect in 2010 and on the verge of ticking off some major milestones if they continue their rampant form, discussion has inevitably turned towards whether the All Blacks have once again hit that mythical peak a year too soon.In other words, can they sustain it until next year's World Cup on home soil?
It's a viable theory given the New Zealand side's history of going into the global tournament as raging favourites and then failing to deliver when it counts.But the All Blacks captain has dismissed the relevance of such a line of thinking ahead of Saturday night's Tri-Nations finale against the Wallabies at ANZ Stadium.
"You only peak when you think you can't get any better, and the whole team considers where we're playing to be off that at the moment," he said. "There's a lot of room for improvement."It feels like a youngish team and there's room to get better. As long as you keep that attitude you're not going to peak. If you think it's as good as you're going to get then you have [peaked] haven't you? The reality is even one week, let alone 12 months, is a long time to change... things could be a lot different in 12 months' time, I tell you."
McCaw's right to take the glass half-full approach. Sure the All Blacks have now won 14 straight tests, they're a perfect eight-from-eight in 2010 and on Saturday night can extend their streak against the Wallabies to a record 10.
They can also become the first side to go a perfect 6-0 in the Tri-Nations.The world record winning streak of either 17 or 18 - depending on whether you count the feats of minor nations - is also tantalisingly within their reach.
And for the first time the All Blacks have started to acknowledge the numbers that they're racking up, with coach Graham Henry speaking to the team this week about their significance.
But McCaw remains adamant that they are not the main motivating factors for a side that's just looking to get better each time they run out.
"I'd be disappointed if that was why we want to go out and perform," said McCaw. "It's a by-product of doing the job right. Sure, we'd love to carry on winning and knock off whatever it is, but that comes second to getting your performance right. Then the results take care of themselves."
McCaw said the All Blacks were "ready to go" after two weeks to refresh and made it clear he did not expect standards to slip.
"We want to finish off this part of the season with a good performance," he said.
But he urged caution in terms of expecting the Wallabies to be vulnerable because they were at the back end of three straight tests and a long trip home from Africa.
"Just because they've played a couple in a row and we haven't, it doesn't mean we're going to be fresher."You have to make that pay by playing well, by making them do a lot of defending, and by playing at the right end of the field. And every time you get an opportunity you make them pay for it."That's the way to put pressure on and if there is any fatigue from a couple of big weeks it starts to show as the game goes on."
The captain also reiterated the team mantra of "internal pressure" keeping standards up.
"No matter the situation, I'd like to think we can be good enough to prepare exactly the same and put out a performance exactly the same... and that's got to come from within," he said.
The respective team selections, due out tomorrow, are going to be interesting. The weary Wallabies are said to be only pondering two forced changes, with either Lachie Turner or Peter Hynes coming in on the wing for Drew Mitchell (hamstring) and Huia Edmonds stepping in as backup hooker.
On the other hand the All Blacks could use test this to give youngsters like Israel Dagg and Victor Vito a run, with Aaron Cruden already penned in as the No 10 in Dan Carter's absence. Piri Weepu's also set to reclaim the No 9 jersey.
McCaw says if changes come, they'll be because players deserve the chance after some big efforts off the bench. He also makes it clear that anyone stepping in has big boots to fill.
"If that happens it means we'll have more than just 15 who have started and played in big tests.. And we'll see how good they are. I'm sure they'll do the job."
All part of making these All Blacks better. And better.