There's an aura about them alright. When the All Blacks make a team announcement it's big news, and Steve Hansen was in his element when a huge media throng ventured to their elegant 18th century four star hotel in Surrey, with its nine-hole golf course and sumptuous gardens.
Which is just as well, as the five All Blacks players wheeled out were confined to fairly prosaic and guarded top table questions and answers, with no separate access to the daily international media. But Hansen freely discussed all manner of questions, whether deflecting Heyneke Meyer's love-bombing the day before, heaping yet more praise on Richie McCaw or augmenting Michael Cheika in defending Craig Joubert with a swipe at World Rugby.
The All Blacks have seemingly hit their straps given their razor -sharp finishing in the 62-13 rout of France last Saturday in Cardiff. Accordingly, Hansen makes just one enforced change, with one-time wrestler
replacing loose-head prop
, who has a groin strain, with
moving on to the bench.
Typical of the skills' set of an All Blacks forward, Moody set up the All Blacks' ninth try by Tawera Kerr-Barlow against the French with an offload out of Sonny Bill Williams' repertoire. While Franks may not have the same impact their bench still oozes pace and game-breakers.
Despite also losing Tony Woodcock along the way, this All Blacks team boasts a phenomenal 967 caps (compared to the Springboks' 701), while the match-day 23 has an average age of 28 and has 1,318 Test caps.
Far from being sated by their World Cup triumph in 2011, they appear to have grown further in confidence and ambition, upping their winning ratio to a faintly ridiculous 93 per cent in the ensuing four years.
Yet their last three meetings with the Boks have all been one-score games, including last year’s defeat in Ellis Park, one of just three losses in 52 Tests since 2011.
“He’s a cunning wee devil, Heyneke,” said Hansen in response to the Springboks coach declaring them the best team of all time. “He’s been praising us all week and, whilst I know he means some of it, I know they’re getting ready to rip our heads off. If we go lapping up all the praise, then we won’t be in the right mental state to play.
“Moving that to one side, we’ve always had a good friendship and it’s a bit of a tradition that if you win the game, you buy the other guy a beer. If you lose, it sucks. We’ve both had our turn to buy, so we’ll wait and see who buys at the weekend.”
The fear will work both ways, not least as a defeat for the All Blacks is close to a national disaster, and especially in a World Cup. “If you’re going into a fight, it’s a stupid man who doesn’t fear the guy he’s fighting. If you don’t fear the guy you’re fighting, you’re fighting the wrong guy or you’re stupid. That fear heightens everything and makes sure all your emotions are in the right place so you can deliver the performance that you need to.”
“Whilst you respect people, there is a fear factor in this game. The fear is that if you don’t win, you don’t get the prize you want, which is to go to the final. That’s the thing that drives you. Once you get over the white line, it’s about getting the job done.
“Heyneke’s praised us a lot this week and that’s a tactic. Behind closed doors I don’t think he’ll be doing that with his team. You can see that in the comment that comes out of the young lock (Lood de Jager), who says they don’t fear us and they respect us, but not very much,” said Hansen.
“I’m sure Heyneke wasn’t very happy when he (de Jager) said that, because he’s trying to paint a picture that they’ll have to play the best game they’ve ever played in their life. At the same time, he’s trying to tell our guys that you just turn up and win. We’d be very foolish to fall into that trap. If we don’t turn up with our ‘A’ game, we’re not going to hit the charts. We’ve got to turn up with our ‘A’ game.”
Furthermore, the fate for the loser is to go home, “or even worse you’ve got to play in that other game and you don’t want to do that,” noted Hansen in reference to the third-place play-off.
Dan Carter echoed his coach's words in stressing the need to apply "a full stop" to last week's quarter-final win, during which the great man showed some vintage touches.
Now 33, Carter was cruelly denied the chance to steer his team to the William Webb Ellis trophy on home soil four years ago (which he assuredly would have done) when sustaining a groin strain doing what he's done almost every day of his adult life – place-kicking.
Two more wins would thus be a fitting finale to his stellar Test career before relocating to Racing Metro, and he’d like to think he can be an example for other players in their 30s.
“The way my body is feeling, I’m good for another couple of years before I hang up the boots. It does get tougher with age, and you have to work a bit harder to stay at the highest level. Professionalism has changed a lot, so that guys are playing bit longer as they have recovery and look after themselves a lot more.”
“It is up to the individual. The body can be fine but it is that drive and desire that is important when you have been playing so long. That is what keeps you in the game, if your mind is willing to do it, and prepared to do anything to get to that level.”