AB's eyeing unbeaten season
Dan Carter (Getty Images)
Wellington - Having steamrolled all before them in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand head north in imperious form looking to avenge a painful defeat to England and complete a rare unbeaten season.
Steve Hansen's world champions beat Australia in Dunedin on Saturday to make it seven wins from seven against Argentina, South Africa and their trans-Tasman foes this year.
They next face Japan in their first non-World Cup clash on November 2 then head to France a week later before taking on England at Twickenham, a game looming as the most important of the tour.
A victory on November 16 at the venue for the 2015 World Cup final would close any open All Blacks wounds from the 38-21 thrashing by England last December that ruined their tilt at an unbeaten 2012.
It would also leave their rivals in no doubt about the task they face in trying to stop the All Blacks becoming the first side to retain the Webb Ellis trophy when they return in two years time.
New Zealand conclude the tour against Ireland in Dublin on November 24 and victory in all four matches would mean a perfect 2013. Hansen, though, was guarded about the prospect of staying unbeaten.
"I don't think we've got any right to go around thumping our chests saying that we're unbeatable," the coach said after Saturday's latest win. "We'll get our feet back on the ground and stay humble and keep working hard.
"We realise that if we don't, then others will come past us. That's not what we want."
So far the team have won all 10 tests they have played this year, including a 3-0 series sweep at home to France, and have won 22 of their 24 matches under Hansen since he succeeded Graham Henry following the 2011 World Cup victory.
The 8-7 victory over France two years ago at Eden Park appears to have erased the self doubt that had accumulated during their 24-year wait between Webb Ellis trophy victories.
The entire team is playing at such a pace and skill level in attack that few sides are able to keep up, as was evident from their 38-27 win over South Africa two weeks ago in Johannesburg and again in the 41-33 victory over the Wallabies on Saturday.
They also trust their defensive systems, reliant that every man inside and outside will make their one-on-one tackles before support players try to turn the ball over and quickly transition aggressive defence into exhilarating attack.
Apart from lifting the skill level and pace of their game, Hansen's goal has been to rebuild the squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup and on Sunday he continued that strategy when he named four new caps for the end of season tour.
A fifth uncapped player, scrumhalf TJ Perenara, was recalled after recovering from an ankle injury that probably stopped him making his debut in the Rugby Championship.
A total of 17 players have now made their test debut under Hansen with Joe Moody, Frank Halai, Luke Whitelock, Dominic Bird and Perenara likely to join them on the end-of-season tour.
Hansen has also developed depth in key positions to the point that the previously unthinkable scenario of playing a test without flanker Richie McCaw and flyhalf Daniel Carter barely raises an eyebrow in the rugby-mad nation now.
Of concern, however, remains finding an adequate back-up to number eight Kieran Read and at hooker with veteran Andrew Hore tipped to retire following the tour.
Those decisions, however, can probably wait until next year when Hansen's side face England in a three-test series at home and no doubt eager to take their game on even further.
All Blacks squad:
Forwards: Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Andrew Hore (Highlanders), Keven Mealamu (Blues), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Ben Franks (Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Tony Woodcock (Highlanders), Dominic Bird (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Steven Luatua (Blues), Richie McCaw (captain, Crusaders), Liam Messam (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Luke Whitelock (Crusaders).
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Dan Carter (Crusaders) Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Tom Taylor (Crusaders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Ma'a Nonu (Highlanders), Francis Saili (Blues), Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Frank Halai (Blues), Cory Jane (Hurricanes), Charles Piutau (Blues), Julian Savea (Hurricanes), Ben Smith (Highlanders).
November 2 v Japan, Tokyo
November 9 v France, Paris
November 16 v England, London
November 24 v Ireland, Dublin