McCaw and company battling demons

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NELSON, September 7 – There's an uneasy sense of deja vu in New Zealand after the current all-conquering All Blacks squad completed a rout of all the top rugby playing nations a year before the World Cup.The 29-22 win over South Africa in Soweto last month to regain the prestigious Tri-Nations Trophy sealed a remarkable turn around for a side humbled by the Springboks in all three Tests they played the previous year.

They’ve since won 14 Tests on the trot, beating the best on offer in the northern and southern hemispheres, and firmly entrenched themselves as the number one ranked side in the world.

But history shows the All Blacks are always conquerors a year before the World Cup and then fail to deliver when it counts.

"Not this time," says coach Graham Henry who managed to retain his post despite the All Blacks crashing out in the quarter-finals at the last World Cup.

Henry’s learnt from his past mistakes and the ill-fated high-rotation policy before the last Cup, which saw his "A" team go in under-prepared, has not been repeated.

Instead there’s an established look about the starting line up to go with their new brand of free-flowing rugby.

But Henry insists he has plenty to do to get the new ball-in-hand style right and rather than being at a peak now there is room for improvement in the All Blacks.

"We have to keep on researching the game. We will do that over the next 12 months, keeping abreast of what is happening in the French top 14 and the European Cup," he said.

"Just look at games and see if there are ideas coming through. We are thinking about what we are doing and how we can improve on it."

Captain Richie McCaw agrees.

"You only peak when you feel you can’t get better. We are happy with where we are at, but we are not kidding ourselves either. We are playing well but we can still get better," he says.

Henry also plays down his new coaching approach for the All Blacks current run of 14 consecutive wins and says he drew his line in the sand when the team embarked on their northern hemisphere tour last year.

"A lot of the benefits we are seeing now are a result of last year’s Tri-Nations where we hit rock bottom and we had to re-establish ourselves," he said.

"The tour helped us do that considerably. We really set some objectives and it came together in the last Test. Quite frankly that was beyond my expectations at the time," he said of the way the All Blacks thrashed France 39-12 and scored five tries to none.

"I thought we had played soundly in the Test matches up till then without having any brilliance. And we played with some brilliance in that game and that set the standard for this year."

And in eight Tests so far this year the All Blacks have scored 36 tries and conceded just 12 to emphasise the benefits of their fast-paced, limited kicking, approach.

But there remain two problems in the All Blacks make up — an absence of match-hardened understudies to the team stars McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter — and it’s here that Henry concedes there is room for a little rotation.

"I think it’s obvious we are going to have to. I know people don’t like going down there but we are going to have to give guys opportunities to play."

Aaron Cruden, Carter’s understudy this year, has had only 60 minutes of Test rugby after coming on as a replacement in the closing minutes of five Tests.

But McCaw is in a class of his own as an openside flanker and should he be injured New Zealand has a dearth of number sevens capable of emulating his role.

Grant Fox, the flyhalf who steered the All Blacks to their only World Cup success in 1987, paid homage to the way the All Blacks are playing in his weekly newspaper column last Sunday.

It will be "painful" if the All Blacks don’t win next year, he wrote, "but I have to say it’s been a pretty good time to be an All Blacks fan in the lead-up".

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