NEWCASTLE (UNITED KINGDOM) – Even without a limping Richie McCaw the All Blacks go into their final group game against Tonga insisting they are ready for the World Cup knockout rounds.
Their final Pool C game is their last chance to erase any anxieties before the competition goes into sudden death. But they will be without their inspirational skipper who is sidelined with a sore thigh.
The All Blacks eased into the quarter-finals unbeaten after three games but without ever looking the unpenetrable fortress they are meant to be.
They are expecting a much-need workout from the bruising Tongans up front, and in the backs a repeat of the one-man “shooter” defence — two areas of concern when they played Georgia last weekend.
Coach Steve Hansen has repeatedly emphasised that the lesson learned from the ill-fated 2007 campaign was that pool games are not for posting record scores but to rehearse for scenarios to be faced in the knockout stages.
He is confident that any problems are being rectified and a thorough work out against Tonga will top things off.
“We’ve worked incredibly hard on the training pitch, but it may not have reflected in the quality of the performance that everyone expects from us,” Hansen said.
“It’s more a reflection of how hard we’ve been working off it, probably harder than we’ve ever worked before as a team in the last four years.
“So, physically we’ll be ready and I know that mentally we’re a strong side.”
– Calm about Carter –
Fly-half Dan Carter suggested “over-thinking” was at the root of their problems and the focus against Tonga was to get clarity in their game.
Carter, looking to recover from scratchy performances and a wayward kicking radar, should feel more comfortable with Ma’a Nonu outside him instead of Sonny Bill Williams.
He refers to Nonu, who will be playing his 100th Test, as his “eyes and ears” relaying what he is seeing and “helping me with my option taking.”
Waisake Naholo has been cleared to start on the wing with Nehe Milner-Skudder giving Julian Savea a break after featuring in the first three wins over Argentina, Namibia and Georgia.
Props Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks return to the starting line up and Luke Romano replaces Brodie Retallick in the middle row.
McCaw, the world’s most experienced Test player with a record 145 caps, was omitted because of a leg knock suffered against Georgia. Sam Cane gets his second start in the tournament.
Hansen stressed McCaw’s injury was not serious and there were no alarm bells. “We’re okay with it and the people who are anxious about it don’t need to be anxious,” Hansen said.
“He would be able to play if this was the quarter final.”
Tonga’s last World Cup hope, a third-place pool finish to automatically qualify for the 2019 World Cup, realistically disappeared Wednesday when Georgia beat Namibia 17-16.
But they still want to finish with pride and captain Nili Latu said they will pressure the All Blacks.
“We’ve got to go in attacking. We can’t just go in there and let the All Blacks have their way,” said Latu who has indicated this will be his last international match.
Tonga centre Siale Piutau, whose All Black brother Charles missed the cut for the World Cup, said the All Blacks have weak points but it will take a total effort to exploit them.
“They have come back from games when they have been down after 60 minutes, 70 minutes. So for us to win this game, not only our belief has to be there, our faith, but were going to have to play the full 80,” he said.
“The way its gone with the Georgians, the Namibians and the Argentinians, they’ve given the All Blacks a good run.”