'Step up': Sam Cane highlights where All Blacks must improve against Ireland
That was the verdict delivered by the All Blacks captain as he spoke to media on Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s series-opening blockbuster against Ireland at Eden Park in Auckland.
The match isn’t only New Zealand’s first test of the year, and the first of their three-match series against the Irish, but it’s also a highly-anticipated rematch against Andy Farrell’s men following last November’s famous defeat in Dublin.
Registering their third win in five tests over the Kiwis, it was the manner in which Ireland hammered the visitors in all aspects of play that particularly stung Ian Foster’s squad in their 29-20 loss in front of a rapturous Aviva Stadium crowd.
Outmuscled, outsmarted and outclassed, Ireland beat the All Blacks in convincing fashion as the New Zealanders struggled to cope with the hosts’ intricate attacking play and uncompromising physicality up front.
Now, eight months on from those losses, the All Blacks are back with a vengeance as they eye redemption over the men from the Emerald Isle in the latest chapter of their storied rivalry.
In order to achieve success against their northern foes this weekend, lessons need to have been learned from the failings of late last year.
Cane identified those failings as areas of his side’s game that need improvement, which he pinpointed as stronger efforts in the contact zone, at the set piece and on defence.
The 77-test flanker said that the onus has subsequently been placed on New Zealand’s forward pack to outshine their Irish counterparts in those areas.
“I think we’ve put a bit of heat on our forward pack to step up to set piece and collisions,” Cane said on Tuesday.
“It’s no secret test rugby is about dominating collisions and winning small inches and moments like that, so focus on that, playing smart footy and having a strong defence, a defence that can create pressure and create turnovers and opportunities for our guys out wide.”
Much interest will therefore be invested in how the All Blacks forwards perform come Saturday, especially in the wake of a seemingly disruptive Covid outbreak that has forced three players and three coaches into isolation.
The loss of Will Jordan, David Havili and Jack Goodhue from the playing contingent will be sorely felt, as will the absences of head coach Ian Foster and his assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod.
However, while he lamented the “terrible timing” of the squad’s virus outbreak, Cane spoke optimistically of how the All Blacks have responded to this week’s setbacks.
Cane made particular note of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick’s leadership qualities in the absence of forwards coach Plumtree, whose role has been assumed by scrum coach Greg Feek.
“Obviously it’s not ideal, but, in terms of disruptiveness, surprisingly it hasn’t been too much at all,” Cane said.
“We’ve got a real experienced leadership group now when you look around our group, and one that I really trust immensely, guys in the forward pack, the likes of Brodie and Sammy Whitelock, who are taking charge of things there.
“Guys are just stepping up and it’s been a good first few days.”
Those comments bode well for the All Blacks and their hopes of turning the tables on the Irish forwards after last November’s historic result.
Spurred on by that defeat, Cane added that the All Blacks are driven to overturn their fortunes and reassert their dominance over Ireland after having surrendered that status in recent years.
“I suppose you could say almost every series or every game or campaign has real importance, but I think there’s certainly that stone in your shoe or rock under the beach towel sort of feeling because of how we finished last year,” he said.
“It was certainly a challenging year on many fronts, but we’ve been really looking forward to this campaign and it’s finally here.”
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