All Blacks looking at the ‘bigger picture’

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iol spt aug13 AB's Haka Reuters The All Blacks head into the Rugby Championship with the whiff of a world record in the nostrils. Photo by: Nigel Marple/Reuters

Wellington - The All Blacks head into the Rugby Championship with the whiff of a world record in the nostrils but their eyes firmly focused on a bigger prize in England in 13 months time.

Steve Hansen's side have the opportunity to secure a world record 18th successive win on Saturday when they face a buoyant Australia, although the “bigger picture” mission is ensuring they continue to advance their 2015 World Cup ambitions.

The former Wales head coach embarked upon a rebuilding project ahead of the defence of the World Cup title and has introduced 24 new caps to the team - 12 of whom are in the Rugby Championship squad - in his three seasons in charge.

The injured Luke Romano is also almost certain to be in Hansen's plans for 2015, while Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty and Tom Taylor are on the fringes of selection and would be considered unlucky not to have been named in the current squad.

Uncapped prop Joe Moody has also been brought in for Tony Woodcock, who requires shoulder surgery and been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Hansen considers that a blessing in disguise.

The 33-year-old Woodcock, considered one of the more damaging scrummagers in world rugby, is likely to enjoy the extended break, Hansen reasoned, in order to freshen up ahead of his final push towards the World Cup next September.

Hansen's biggest headache derives from his search for one, possibly two, hookers to step up if 35-year-old Keven Mealamu's calf muscles finally decide they cannot carry the 113-test veteran through another year.

His decision to select just Dane Coles and Mealamu for the Rugby Championship, however, suggests he is willing to take a gamble on blooding a third hooker on New Zealand's end of year tour to the United States and Britain.

The explosive Malakai Fekitoa's emergence at centre has handed him a replacement for Conrad Smith, while flyhalves Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett have done enough to suggest the absence of Dan Carter will not be a significant upheaval.

Carter, the world's all-time leading points scorer, returned in July after taking a six-month sabbatical in an attempt to shake off a series of lingering injuries that were hampering his playing time as he looked ahead to 2015.

The 32-year-old, however, broke a bone in his leg during the Canterbury Crusaders' Super Rugby final loss to the New South Wales Waratahs and was ruled out for at least the two clashes against the Wallabies.

When fit again, though, he is widely expected to retain his status as the automatic choice at flyhalf, no matter how well Cruden and Barrett may be playing.

Reports in New Zealand indicate Carter had a major input into a revamp of the tactics after 2011 which have resulted in the team offering the multiple threats over the last two seasons.

While they have attempted to play a high-tempo, spread-the-ball-wide gameplan since 2012, in the second test against France in 2013 their tactical kicking was superb with Cruden controlling the flow of the match.

Always dangerous on the counter-attack and from broken play, their backs showed against England in the third test this year how potent they can be from set pieces by scoring tries from the first phase - a rarity in the modern era of rugby-league inspired drift defences.

Their pack provided the platform for the backs to cut loose in the 36-13 victory over England at Waikato Stadium in June and have often been overlooked in recent years as they quietly went about their work.

Two successful clashes against the massive Springboks forwards last year, however, indicated they were more than capable of matching up against physical sides and they will expect - and give - no quarter again this season. – Reuters



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