Japan match development venture
The All Blacks have hit Japan with some firm goals in mind and the tacit understanding that this is no run-of-the-mill test rugby week.
After the intensity of the Rugby Championship and the unknown aspect of the tacked-on Bledisloe in Dunedin, the world’s number one rugby side have touched down in Tokyo with the pressure very much dialled back as they launch their annual end-of-year tour on a relatively low-key note.
This fixture – the first official test against the Japanese outside of a World Cup – was added to the tour schedule for distinct development reasons. There will be a World Cup in Japan in 2019, and some fringe All Blacks will be given the chance to experience a test week free of the pressure of a traditional top-tier opponent.
But it’s a week not just about the new wave of talent from an All Black perspective. There are also a couple of old soldiers who need to slip back into the fatigues ahead of more pressing duties, so the presence of the 120-test Richie McCaw and the 97-test Daniel Carter will add a harder edge to an otherwise youthful lineup.
There’s certainly no expectation that the All Blacks will be genuinely challenged at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Even coach Steve Hansen is prepared to concede that.
Asked if it would be a ‘‘tragedy’’ if his team were to lose to a Japanese side they crushed 83-7 at the last World Cup, Hansen offered an honest insight into the mentality for the week.
‘‘ That would be putting mildly,’’ he said with a smile.
‘‘That’s no disrespect to Japan, but we’re expecting to win the game and play really well. But they’ll also have an attitude they want to play well and compete, and we saw in the World Cup they put France under a lot of pressure for a long time, so it’s not just a matter of turning up.
‘‘We have to respect the opposition and also put a lot of time into us, how we prepare and do it in a genuine fashion. If you take your foot off the pedal you fall off the bike and graze your knee, and we don’t want to do that.’’
Hansen, of course, is right with his homespun wisdom. The All Blacks should win comfortably, but they’ve also got to be professional about their preparation to ensure standards remain high.
It’s about getting guys like Steven Luatua, Francis Saili, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau another week in the black jersey, and another experience to bank away. But it’s also about continuing to develop their game among a group getting deeper seemingly by the day.
After Saturday the road gets steeper quickly, with France in Paris, England at Twickenham and then the year’s finale against the Irish at the Aviva Stadium.
There’s already been plenty of talk about the revenge match against the English who have been the only team to defeat the All Blacks since Steve Hansen took charge in 2012. Many see it as the defining contest of this tour – indeed of the year. Not Hansen, at this stage. ‘‘I’ve heard a lot of people talk about England, but we’ve got to play Japan, then France, and they’re not a bad side,’’ said the All Blacks coach.
‘‘ England aren’t even on my mind at the moment. I get a bit frustrated hearing about England – we’ll deal with them in England week.’’
First up will be a Japanese team with a style Hansen says presents challenges.
‘‘It is fast, and we’ve got to be careful we don’t get caught up playing a helter-skelter game that hasn’t got control in it and hasn’t got the physical intensity we need to put on them.
‘‘There has to be a physical component, we have to do our core roles really well, and play the game we want to play rather than the harum-scarum stuff.’’
It’s a short and different week for the 27 All Blacks in Tokyo, but it should be a productive one.