All Blacks all smiles – but only before serious business begins

New Zealand hoping past World Cup mistakes will aid them in quest to make history

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw gets ready to scrum down with his fellow forwards during the Bledisloe Cup match against Australia at Eden Park, Auckland, in August. Photograph:  Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw gets ready to scrum down with his fellow forwards during the Bledisloe Cup match against Australia at Eden Park, Auckland, in August. Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

 

They are here to win the World Cup. They think it and look it. They behave it and live it. A knife-edge blend of stunning confidence and old-school courtesy, the All Black brand, the players, the colour, the culture swept into south-west London last Friday and annexed the population. New Zealand has always excelled in the game of hearts and minds.

Richie McCaw is one of the assets. He sweeps into the room at Lensbury, an old colonial patchwork of buildings and sports fields once owned by Shell Oil.

He smiles and slides into the middle chair at the table. On his right is scrumhalf Aaron Smith and his left the explosive winger Nehe Milner-Skudder.

But McCaw fills more space, delivers more wattage, even more than coach Steve Hansen, who today is smiling and joking and far from the flinty character he can often appear.

“Me? Nervous? No. No, I don’t think so. Do I look nervous? Are you nervous? No, I feel relaxed,” says Hansen.

Records have tumbled before McCaw and the coach. From Brian O’Driscoll’s international mark of 141 caps, which McCaw has sailed past, to his leadership of a team that has, since 2012, won close to 90 per cent of their matches, there’s no real need for fretting.

McCaw oozes the All Black sleight of hand of talking nice and saying little, of providing respectful doses of regard and consideration to Argentina, their opponents at Wembley on Sunday, and at the same time hinting at the futility of the opponent’s task.

There’s no fear in his voice or in Hansen’s. McCaw’s only fear is letting down the brand, not living up to the expectations of the shirt. Whatever they say, they cannot hide the unapologetic poise and their almost servile desire to serve the All Blacks.

“Playing in the All Black team with some of the best players around . . . going into a World Cup is the pinnacle of your career. Pretty easy to get excited,” says the All Black captain.

On Sunday he plays alongside blindside flanker Jerome Kaino and number eight Kieran Read. Kaino has 60 caps, Read 77 and McCaw 142. It’s a 259-cap backrow.

There’s talk of Augustín Creevy, the Argentinian hooker with good enough off-loading skills to be nicknamed ‘Sonny Bill’ Creevy. Naturally it’s a comparison that elevates the Argentinian player. But you wonder how much ball Creevy will get from the high-tempo game McCaw’s team plays.

Advantage

The last time they met, in the Rugby Championship in July, New Zealand came out 39-18 winners.

“There’s a fair bit of familiarity playing with those guys over the years,” says McCaw of Kaino and Read. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything. Hopefully we’ll use it to our advantage. But we still have to do everything right so we can put it out on the field.”

Hansen does not have McCaw’s star quality or his presence but he is astute and polished and between the carefully chosen words has fantastic belief in his players and what they can produce.

“Before any questions, I just want to say how excited we are to arrive,” he says. “We’re a group of men who are itching to get out there and to get started. There’s a lot of history comes with Wembley. I’ve never been there myself.

“I don’t think too many of the players have but we all understand it’s a special arena and a special history and history tends to excite this team a wee bit.”

The most successful team of all time, current world champions, the first team in the professional era to go through an entire season unbeaten (in 2013), have history on their minds.

They won the first World Cup in 1987 and again four years ago, which catapulted them towards London with a mission to become the first team to successfully defend the title.

On Friday Hansen was asked how difficult that would be, especially with an English side drawing energy from a home crowd that really believes in the possibility of victory for their team.

There was also the suggestion that playing their first game against the second strongest team in the pool could be a disadvantage for the All Blacks when it came to the knockout stages, where they would likely face either Ireland or France.

The build-up to that tough quarter-final would be a string of doleful mismatches against Namibia, Georgia and Tonga, where the scoreboard is likely to reflect anywhere from a 50- to 100-point win for New Zealand.

Statement

“The statement answers the question,” replied Hansen. “How difficult . . . No one’s done it before so it must be difficult. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Someone is going to do it first and we are the only ones in the tournament with an opportunity.

“Again I emphasise that we learned in ’07 that if you get too far ahead, you get on a plane and go home. We’ll just worry about Argentina this week. It’s an old cliche but it’s one we’ve been hanging on to.”

In the car park at the team base, there’s a large black kit van with the NZ logos as well as a giant team bus with a white fern painted at an angle along the side and over the roof.

There are thick white lines across the roof and back end suggesting, though not explicitly, that their sponsor is a company with a three-stripe logo. The windows are tinted so the entire vehicle is black and white.

The darkened windows serve another purpose because it’s where the world champions must change before games. Team sponsor logos are banned from match-day kit.

Maximise exposure

Because of the reach of the All Black brand and the levels of investment put in, the players wear their team-sponsored kit leaving the hotel in a bid to maximise exposure.

They then change into the permitted kit on the bus before walking into the stadium. In many ways, the All Blacks are like a self-fulfilling prophesy, a gold-plated brand that manages to drive players to live up to the reputation, which in turn makes them better.

“This team has got a lot of talent and it’s got a lot of self-belief,” says Hansen. “It now just needs to have the hunger. And the desire. And the work ethic.”

As if that was open to question.

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