Awesome Blacks: Hottest World Cup favourites have a one-track mind

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The Independent Online

If New Zealand fielded two teams in the World Cup it is possible that All Blacks I would meet All Blacks II in the final in Paris. If Graham Henry is not quite sure who his best XV are, maybe it is because he is seeing double.

Most teams' idea of a rota system is to apply a pinprick here or there; New Zealand undergo a head-to-toe blood transfusion. Last season, on their whitewash tour of the home countries, they beat Wales 41-3 in Cardiff, and a week later fielded what was thought to be their second string against Ireland in Dublin. They won 45-7.

Nobody can come close to such strength in depth or depth in strength. On their latest mini-tour the All Blacks, both versions, were even better, putting 40-odd points on England, France and Wales. Only in the Second Test against the French, which they won 23-11, was the score remotely respectable for the vanquished.

"Our whole selection philo-sophy revolves around winning the World Cup," Anton Oliver said. "When we have slipped up in the past it was because we didn't have suitable Test replacements and we had to make do. It took huge courage to implement our new policy. There was a lot of flak. We were accused of devaluing the jersey and all that kind of nonsense.

"Now we are at the point where we have got 32 players and they are as good as each other, they just offer different styles. We can put two or three in every position. Only a few, like Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw, would be difficult to replace."

At 31 and with 50 caps, 10 of them as captain in the middle of the front row, Oliver is regarded as the elder statesman, yet these are no Baby Blacks. "In terms of caps this is the most experienced group we have ever had," Oliver said. "There are a huge number who have won 30 or more caps. We play an extraordinary number of Tests." Hence the 100 per cent rota. From playing England at Twickenham last month (to open the new South Stand) to reaching the World Cup final in October (it is more when than if) New Zealand will have played 18 times.

"From a purist point of view that's quite sickening," Oliver said. " Nobody can play 18 Tests in less than a year. That in itself is a compelling reason to rotate. Comparisons to even 10 years ago are defunct. What we are doing is working. If we think a guy is good enough there is no fear about putting him out there."

Since June the All Blacks' record is played 13, won 12, the only defeat coming against South Africa, 21-20, in Rustenberg in September. "Nobody's invincible," Oliver said, "but you don't want to turn over ball against us because we will capitalise. If you play defensively that's not much better, and if you go for parity that's not going to work either. You have to attack and come and take it off us.

"One of the highlights of this tour was the First Test against France. We were really up for it and played with such intensity and ferocity they couldn't handle it. We never saw the French attacking game. I don't know where it's gone. The Springboks usually push us close because they're prepared to take us on. They've just finished a tour in which they left their top men at home. We tried that in 2003 and it was idiotic. Players want to play for their country."

And New Zealand have got 75 of them under contract. England's best performance of the autumn came against the All Blacks - three tries scored, one disallowed - and they still went down to a record defeat. "Winning at Twickenham is one of the hardest things to do," Oliver said. "It's a magnificent stadium and England have a tremendous history. They have hit rock bottom, so from here everything has to be a positive.

"If we were playing the World Cup now, well... but we're not. There's 10 months to go and you should never write off the champions. Nor would I underestimate the Aussies.

"When England led the world they brought pressure to bear through a magnificent pack and kicked their goals. They played better the year before, so that shows how good they were. They won the World Cup and they weren't at their best. England used their forwards to dominate and we had to learn from that."

The All Blacks pack, as they showed against the Lions,are as good as any and, allied to their sensational backs, it is no wonder they are the hottest favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup since David Kirk got his hands on it in the inaugural competition in New Zealand in 1987. At the time Oliver - his dad, Frank, was a lock forward three decades ago, and they are the first father and son to captain their country - was a 13-year-old playing in a tournament in the South Island.

After England's defeat a month ago Julian White, and he was not alone, accused the All Blacks of all sorts of shenanigans at the scrum. "They cheat on the engagement with all that threequarter crouch and rolling hit stuff but they get away with it," the prop said. "It's no good moaning about it." Oliver sees it differently. "We figure out how a referee interprets things and play to that, but that's not cheating."

Before Christmas Oliver will spend a few weeks trekking in Nepal, and when the Super 14 gets under way the All Blacks will miss a sizeable chunk of it to concentrate on their conditioning. The world is their Bluff oyster.

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