New Zealand have stopped tilting at windmills, having initially cast Ireland as the imaginary foe in the absence of a flesh-and-bone iteration, a stance which came to light in post-match comments made by head coach Ian Foster following his side’s 96-17 thrashing of Italy.
Beware of Scotland, he counselled, a reasonable sentiment if he had genuine concern for the size of the task that Ireland face at the Stade de France this Saturday night. He’s right, Ireland do need to be vigilant, but since then there has been no mention of Andy Farrell and his squad, good, bad or solicitous.
The All Blacks play Uruguay in their final pool match at the OL Stadium in Lyons on Thursday night (8pm, Irish time) and but for a cancelled vision access on Monday afternoon and a team announcement that was pushed back by an hour to Tuesday lunchtime, the rest of the media engagement has been charming and largely inward-looking.
New Zealand are focusing on themselves with an occasional supportive and positive reference to opponents Uruguay. Foster was back on duty to answer questions about the composition of the 23 for the match.
Sam Cane, who made his return from a back injury as a replacement against the Italians, is back as captain in the run-on team, one of nine changes. Sam Whitelock became the most capped New Zealand player of all-time when making his 149th appearance as a replacement against Italy.
The secondrow will celebrate another milestone on Wednesday night when he appears in a 23rd World Cup match, breaking the record he previously held alongside England prop Jason Leonard and his countryman Richie McCaw.
Will Jordan, Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga offer a first-choice hue to the backline, the talented and versatile Damian McKenzie gets a run at fullback, while Cane will be keen to muscle his way back into contention for a starting place in the backrow for a quarter-final. Scott Barrett and Brad Barrett are named among the replacements.
Foster was asked about striking a balance between decreasing the workload for some players while retaining a freshness and momentum from one game to the next. He said: “That’s the challenge of World Cups. You’ve got to make sure that you prepare for the here and now, I guess with an eye to the future. You’ve got to get that balance right.
“Uruguay represents some significant challenges in many areas of the game for us that perhaps we have to get better in for the future anyway. They are an ambitious team. We know we are going to have to be alive defensively. We also know they are highly combative at the breakdown.”
The All Blacks coach also accepted that discipline, both in penalty and card counts, is something that coaches and squads must discuss before matches. The tournament has already demonstrated the folly of a careless or mistimed tackle. Foster admitted: “You’ve only got to watch World Cup games to know you have to talk about it. Look, there’s been so many cards.
“It seems to be the way it is, hopefully that settles down a bit. We are aware of the way the game is being played and officiated now. We know we’ve got to take responsibility for our technique as much as we can. It’s an area that has big ramifications if you get it wrong. It’s not the focus, but it’s high up on the list.”
Foster was asked about promising young scrumhalf Cam Roigard, who has been excellent in the tournament to date, and what areas he’d like to see him improve; the coach mentioned his passing, which was then put to Roigard.
The scrumhalf said: “That’s always a work-on for me and other nines because it’s probably the most important part of our game and sets our platform up for the way that the All Blacks want to play.
“I think about my preparation and trying to make sure I am putting some time into working on my pass, trying to make sure I am deliberate with my technique and process and stuff. So then when I am out there, I have full confidence and trust in my ability because I have done the work during the week.”
Roigard paid tribute to Aaron Smith’s input on his development. “He’s been awesome. He’s been open for me asking questions and try to pick his brain a little. He’s been great, almost like another coach.”
NEW ZEALAND: D McKenzie; W Jordan, A Lienert-Brown, J Barrett, L Fainga’anuku; R Mo’unga, C Roigard; Ó Tuungafasi, C Taylor, T Lomax; S Whitelock, T Vaa’i; S Frizell, S Cane (capt), L Jacobson.
Replacements: S Taukei’aho, T Williams, F Newell, S Barrett, E Blackadder, F Christie, B Barrett, C Clarke.