Thursday Nov 25, 2010
Remember Marseille. That is the call All Black captain Richie McCaw will emphasise ahead of a tilt at a third Grand Slam this weekend.
Rather than focusing on the ends, the All Blacks will be focusing on the means and Marseille is as good a reference point as they're going to get.
Bodies and minds drained after a physically and mentally challenging 2009 that saw South Africa dominate, the All Blacks put in a defining performance in their final test of the year, beating France in their southern stronghold.
McCaw believed that 39-12, five-tries-to-nil thrashing gave his side impetus that carried over to 2010.
"It made the start of this year a hell of a lot easier knowing you'd put that performance together. That's what I'm pretty keen to make sure we try to do that this week."
If Marseille was a confidence restorer for the Tri-Nations, Cardiff could be a primer for the World Cup.
The coaches look set to make up to half a dozen changes to the team that brushed aside a spirited Ireland 38-18.
The changes in the forwards should be predictable, with Keven Mealamu set to return after a two-week suspension, Brad Thorn to come in for his 50th test after recovering from a hamstring strain and Sam Whitelock to replace the injured Tom Donnelly.
There has been more conjecture around the selection of the backs, though Jimmy Cowan is the undisputed No 1 halfback in the absence of Piri Weepu and demands a start.
It seems Sonny Bill Williams has trumped Ma'a Nonu, who lacked penetration against Ireland, for the second five-eighths role and in a potential surprise, Isaia Toeava is set to line up on the right wing instead of Cory Jane.
Dan Carter, two points shy of Jonny Wilkinson's test point-scoring record, sat out Tuesday's training session in Bath with a niggle to the right ankle he recently had operated on, but is expected to play.
It is that time of year, when the aches and pains of a 13-test campaign start to take their toll. McCaw said the problems were not so much physical as mental.
"It's the mind that loses a bit of zip," he said. "That's what you've got to keep working on because the body will do what the mind tells it. If you ask the guys, they're not feeling too bad at the end of a 10-month season."
The players know, too, that a Grand Slam is just 80 minutes away. For some like McCaw and Mils Muliaina it will be their third, while the likes of Owen Franks and Williams are Grand Slam virgins.
There's also the chance to do it at Millennium Stadium, one of the world's great arenas even if the surface does not match its surrounds, in front of 80,000 screaming Welsh, most of whom believe the All Blacks have fluked and cheated their way through the past 57 years.
"Winning a Grand Slam is not an easy thing to do, but we've given ourselves a chance and it will be a nice thing to look back on in December knowing you've done the job," McCaw said. "It would be really disappointing not to do the job this week."
South Africa's loss to Scotland last week served to remind the All Blacks that nothing can be taken for granted.
The Scots were at a low ebb after being humiliated 49-3 by the All Blacks, similar to how Wales will be feeling after their 16-16 draw with Fiji that has seen captain Ryan Jones summarily dismissed and coach Warren Gatland take an unprecedented amount of heat.
McCaw said last week's test against Ireland was mentally a trickier assignment than this one, because at least they now feel like they're on the final furlong with the post fast approaching.
With the buzz descending upon Cardiff, with Carter's record just a penalty away and with another addition to the "legacy" just 80 minutes away, there seems little chance the All Blacks will be caught cold.
By Dylan Cleaver