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Lions floor Maori in All Blacks dress rehearsal

June 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Leigh Halfpenny booted the British and Irish Lions to a convincing 32-10 win over the Maori All Blacks on Saturday to regain precious momentum ahead of next week’s first Test against New Zealand.

Furlong

After turning 12-10 ahead, a penalty try soon after half-time and try from lock Maro Itoje — when the Maori had a man in the sin-bin — gave the Lions complete control at a wet Rotorua. Halfpenny kicked six penalties and a conversion.

“It’s important for our momentum, our confidence,” said Lions captain Peter O’Mahony.

“You don’t want to be going into a game against the All Blacks with losses under our belt. This win goes a long way to building what we want to build.”

The Lions’ confidence-boosting win, after Tuesday’s loss to the Otago Highlanders and a week before they face the All Blacks, underscored how the first Test in Auckland will be a battle of contrasting styles.

While the All Blacks ran from all angles in their 12-try, 78-0 win over Samoa on Friday, the clinical Lions stuck to their formula of mixing a kick-and-chase game from Conor Murray with strong, driving, forward play.

They had the better of the Maori in the air and at the breakdown, and they dominated the scrums in the second half.

Such was their overwhelming control, boosted by the scavenging of Sean O’Brien, that they enjoyed more than 70 percent of possession.

But despite an abundance of ball and territory they struggled to beat a tenacious Maori defence and get across the line.

The Lions did, however, successfully shut down the Maori backs and young All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie — all considered exceptional ball-runners — had few opportunities.

The one time Milner-Skudder featured it produced the game’s opening try, when he slipped through a gap and kicked ahead.

George North failed to gather the ball, allowing Liam Messam to charge through and touch down on 12 minutes.

It was not until the Maori were down to 14 men, with scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow yellow-carded for a no-arms tackle on Halfpenny, that the Lions benefited with their two tries.

The first was a seven-point penalty try when the Maori forwards, already on a warning from referee Jaco Peyper, gave way in a five-metre scrum.

The second try went to Saracens lock Itoje, who barged over after another Maori scrum disintegrated.

While the pre-match focus was on the Lions’ loose trio of Taulupe Faletau, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, it was Itoje who was the towering force among the forwards.

By the time Kerr-Barlow returned to the fray, the fight had gone out of his forward pack and the Lions forwards were able to rumble forward with confidence.

When the Maori had a full complement of 15 on the field, the Lions camped deep in enemy territory but they could not score a try.

Halfpenny landed four penalties in the first half with McKenzie converting Messam’s try and kicking a penalty for the Maori.

In addition to the two tries in the second half for the Lions, Halfpenny added a further two penalties and a conversion.

All Blacks plan to face Samoa before British and Irish Lions’ tour

April 5, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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The All Blacks hope to warm-up for the British and Irish Lions tour with a Test match against Samoa, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew has revealed.

All Blacks

Tew said the world champions wanted a hit-out before the first Test against the Lions on June 24 in Auckland and were in talks with the Pacific islanders, who are renowned for their hard-tackling rugby.

He said the All Blacks benefited from a similar warm-up against Fiji the last time the Lions toured in 2005, when they won the series 3-0.

“In 2005, we played Fiji and that set us up very well for a very good first-off Test match in Christchurch,” Tew told SkySports late Tuesday.

“So we’re looking at that option, Samoa’s definitely one of those things that we’re working our way through at the moment.”

Tew also rejected criticism of the Lions’ gruelling tour schedule, which sees them face all five New Zealand Super Rugby teams and the Maori All Blacks, as well as playing three Tests.

He said the tourists had asked for a challenge after their 2-1 series win in Australia in 2013.

“The Lions said they wanted a tougher itinerary than they got in Australia,” he said.

“They wanted to play the five Super Rugby sides and they deliberately chose to play the Maori All Blacks the week before the first Test.

“So they’ve actually got what they wanted.”

Tew joked that doubts about taking on the Super Rugby sides may have emerged after the Waikato Chiefs thrashed the touring Wales side 40-7 last year.

However, he believed the Lions would be a different story.

“They’re going to come out here with a lot of depth and a lot of talent,” he said.

“If they don’t get hit with injuries in critical positons we’re in for a hell of a series.”

Perfect Crusaders march on, Jaguares beat Reds

March 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders won their fifth-straight game to be one of only three unbeaten teams in this season’s Super Rugby as Argentina’s Jaguares won again this weekend.

Jaguares

The seven-time champion Crusaders whipped the hapless Western Force of Australia 45-17 to stake their claim for this year’s southern hemisphere provincial crown.

Fellow Kiwis Waikato Chiefs and South Africa’s Western Stormers are also yet to lose with the Stormers denying Japan’s Sunwolves 44-31 in Singapore while the Chiefs had a bye.

Across in Buenos Aires the Jaguares won for the fourth time this season, downing Australia’s Queensland Reds 22-8 to lie just one point off the lead held by the Golden Lions in the Africa 2 conference.

The Lions overpowered the endangered Southern Kings 42-19 in an all-South African derby in Port Elizabeth, while the Coastal Sharks won a high-scoring derby 38-30 over the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

There was little joy for the beleaguered Australian hopes with the ACT Brumbies succumbing to an 18-13 loss at home to New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders, while the NSW Waratahs won a thrilling derby with a last-minute try 32-25 over the Rebels in Melbourne.

In the remaining game, the Blues downed South Africa’s Northern Bulls 38-14 in Auckland, while the defending champions Wellington Hurricanes had a bye.

The Crusaders posted seven tries to two and kept the Force scoreless in the second half to make it five wins from five this season.

It was a lopsided defeat the Force could have done without amid speculation the Perth club faces the axe as governing body SANZAAR look to revamp the dysfunctional competition.

The Stormers survived a​n audacious challenge from the struggling Sunwolves to maintain their unbeaten start, winning a 10-try thriller at Singapore’s national stadium.

Trailing for most of ​what was a high-paced, free-flowing match after being caught out by the Sunwolves’ innovative attack, the South Africans needed all their extra big-match experience to wear down the tournament newcomers, who faded badly in the last quarter of the match.

“The Sunwolves are a smart side and they’re very well coached,” Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said.

“We knew it was going to be tough but they still surprised us with some of the things they did, especially when they kicked in behind us.”

The Jaguares fortunes continue to improve this season with a side-stepping try by winger Ramiro Moyano the highlight of a bruising battle with the Reds.

Democratic Republic of Congo-born Madosh Tambwe scored his first Super Rugby tries as the Lions pounded the Southern Kings.

Tambwe took just four minutes to score, intercepting a pass before collecting a pass on the tryline to dot down for his second try.

Teenager Curwin Bosch proved an outstanding back-up for injured skipper Patrick Lambie, kicking 18 points in the Sharks win over the Cheetahs.

The 19-year-old fly-half slotted four penalties and three conversions from eight attempts and was voted man of the match as the Sharks made it four straight wins since losing the opening game of the season.

Centre David Horwitz scored a try in the final minute to cap a second-half fightback to give the Waratahs a thrilling win over the Rebels.

The Waratahs trailed 25-6 at half-time but squeezed home on the back of four second-half tries to deny the Rebels a prized victory over their better-resourced Australian rivals.

The Highlanders returned to the ground where they knocked the Brumbies out of last season’s quarter-finals to overturn a 10-5 half-time deficit.

Otago’s victory extended Australian teams’ misery against Kiwi opposition this season with New Zealand boasting a 7-0 winning record so far this year.

A second half revival sparked by two Matt Duffie tries gave the Blues a comfortable win over the Bulls.

No England-All Blacks clash in 2017

March 23, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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A mouthwatering showdown between England and New Zealand will have to wait until 2018 after it was announced Wednesday that the Barbarians will play the world champion All Blacks at Twickenham on November 4.

Retalick

England coach Eddie Jones had confirmed reports in the British media indicating that the Rugby Football Union, were keen to squeeze in a match between his Six Nations champions and New Zealand on that date.

But the invitational Barbarians, in a match marking their 125th anniversary, have now received approval from the RFU, English rugby union’s governing body, to play the All Blacks on November 4.

“The Barbarians approached the RFU last month with a request to stage this fixture at Twickenham and the request has been granted, replacing a Barbarians v Australia match previously approved,” said a Barbarians statement.

England are now not scheduled to play New Zealand until November 2018, with an RFU spokeswoman telling AFP that Wednesday’s announcement meant there was no chance of the two countries meeting later this year.

Their last clash was back in 2014, when New Zealand won 24-21 at Twickenham.

Several England players are, however, likely to face the All Blacks as part of the British and Irish Lions squad heading to New Zealand for a three-Test series in June and July.

England equalled New Zealand’s record of 18 successive Test victories by a ‘tier one’ or leading rugby union nation with victory over Scotland.

After that match, the Daily Mail reported that the RFU had approached their New Zealand counterparts about the prospect of a November 4 Test clash, although the paper highlighted tensions over how the gate receipts from a likely 82,000 sell-out crowd would be split.

England’s defeat of Scotland saw them retain their Six Nations title but their attempts to break New Zealand’s record and complete back-to-back Grand Slams foundered with a 13-9 loss to Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

It was the Irish too who ended New Zealand’s run with a 40-29 win in Chicago in November.

Jones speaking after Saturday’s match in Dublin, the Australian’s first loss as England coach, said of the Lions’ prospects of a first series win in New Zealand since 1971 that the All Blacks were “there for the taking”.

England are already due to play Australia, Argentina and Samoa in November this year.

Adding another Test to the autumn international calendar led to concerns over player welfare, with England’s Premiership Rugby, which represents the country’s top 12 clubs, reportedly against releasing players for an additional fixture outside of World Rugby’s November international ‘window’ without significant compensation.

Meanwhile the Mail reported Wednesday that NZRU chief executive Steve Tew wanted the All Blacks to play the Barbarians on November 4 rather than face England outside of the ‘window’.

South Africa down Fiji for Las Vegas Rugby Sevens crown

March 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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South Africa strengthened their grip on the World Rugby Sevens Series, notching their fourth win of the season on Sunday with a 19-12 triumph over Fiji in Las Vegas.

2017 USA Sevens Rugby Tournament - Day 3

With tries from Chris Dry, Cecil Afrika and Rosko Specman South Africa denied Fiji a third straight Las Vegas crown. Fiji, the Olympic champions, remain in search of a first victory of the season, although they moved into second place in the standings led by South Africa on 107 points.

Fiji leapfrogged England to stand second on 83 points, England dropping to third on 81 as the series heads to Vancouver next weekend.

This time around, South Africa powered to the title without Seabelo Senatla, crowned player of the final in both Wellington and Sydney before leaving the Blitzboks for Super Rugby duty.

Man of the match Honors on Sunday went to Specman, who said he owed a debt to his teammates — and offered a shout-out to Senatla.

“It feels fantastic to win, but the team is doing the hard work,” he said. “I think maybe it’s lucky number 11. I am wearing the shirt from Seabelo, maybe it is giving me that little bit of extra speed!”

South Africa captain Philip Snyman said the victory at blustery Sam Boyd Stadium was the most difficult of the season against a Fiji side out to avenge defeats in Dubai and Wellington.

“Fiji wanted to get one back over us but credit to the boys,” he said. “Now we go to cooler conditions in Vancouver and hopefully we can continue with the form we are in.”

Both finalists had to fight back for semi-final wins.

Fiji were 14 points down in the first half against New Zealand but roared back with 19 unanswered points for a 19-14 triumph.

South Africa were in an early 12-0 hole against the United States but rallied to beat the hosts 20-17.

The United States recovered from that disappointment to beat New Zealand  19-15 for third place, reaching the podium for the first time in their home tournament.

Fiji cruise at Las Vegas Sevens

March 5, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Olympic champions Fiji launched the defence of their USA Sevens crown in style, thrashing Japan before overpowering Scotland to remain on course for the quarter-finals.

Fiji

The Fijians, who are still without a tournament win in this season’s World Sevens Series, looked like a team on a mission with a ruthless 41-0 demolition of Japan in their opening Pool D game at the Sam Boyd Stadium.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro gold medallists then followed that up with a 24-12 victory over Scotland in their second game.

The Scots had earlier finished on the losing side in the best game of Friday’s opening matches, losing 28-21 to Australia in a thrilling duel.

Scotland had looked to be on course for a deserved win after surging into a 21-7 second half lead.

But two tries from Lachie Anderson helped Australia draw level before skipper Ed Jenkins came up with the decisive score on the whistle.

Elsewhere Friday, series leaders South Africa were made to work hard by a physical Canada side in a 26-7 win.

The Blitzboks, who have won tournaments in Dubai, Wellington and Sydney this season, were then too strong for France in the final match of the night, winning 31-0.

New Zealand meanwhile failed to impress in their opening games against Kenya and Russia.

The Kiwis trailed 5-7 against the Kenyans at half-time before grinding down their opponents in the second half to win 24-7.

The New Zealanders also struggled to convince against Russia, making hard of subduing the physical European minnows before running out 19-5 winners.

In Pool B, the United States and England are on a collision course after opening wins that set up a group decider on Saturday.

The USA opened with an emphatic 26-5 win over Samoa, Danny Barrett scoring a fine hat-trick as the South Pacific Islanders struggled to cope with the Americans speed and tempo.

The US then swatted Chile 31-0 to set up a showdown with England, who also won their opening games. England downed Chile 31-5 but were pushed hard by Samoa, hanging on for a 12-5 win.

Super Rugby has plenty to tackle in 2017

February 22, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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A new Super Rugby season kicks off this week with bosses pledging to tackle its unwieldy conference structure, exhausting travel schedules and lopsided contests.

Hurricanes

There will be a first fixture in Samoa in June, meaning the 2017 Super Rugby season will now straddle 17 time zones and four continents.

The competition will retain the much-criticised four conference format, while tweaking kick-off times to trial Thursday night matches and increase the number of afternoon games.

“Our biggest challenge is obviously the geographical expanse we’ve got to cover,” said Andy Marinos, the chief executive of Super Rugby’s governing body SANZAAR, while promising that team schedules would be managed better this year.

“We’ve had some key learnings out of 2016 that we can implement into 2017 around how we manage the players during the week and how we work the travel schedule,” he said.

The far-flung tournament has its critics, notably England’s former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, who bluntly observed last season: “Some of the games put me to sleep.”

With six franchises in South Africa and five each in Australia and New Zealand, plus Japan’s Sunwolves, and Argentina’s Jaguares, organisers are wrestling with the conflicting interests of the five competing nations.

Each Super Rugby team plays 15 matches and has two byes in the 17-round regular season. The competition final is on August 5 with a short mid-season break in June and July.

The teething problems of last year’s expansion to 18 teams have forced a rethink with the heads of Australian, New Zealand, South African and Argentinian rugby convening in early March to finalise competition changes for 2018 after an urgent strategic review was announced by Marinos last month.

South Africa, with just three titles in the 21 seasons of Super Rugby, are mostly concerned about their arduous travel schedules.

Oregan Hoskins, who resigned as president of SA Rugby last August, stated South Africa would be better off aligning to European leagues rather than with SANZAAR, which would mean few time differences for their matches.

Alternatives to the confusing four-conference competition could include a return to 15 teams, with Australia dropping one team and South Africa cutting two.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) chief executive Steve Tew has called for patience as the problems are tackled.

“Long-term if the foundations are laid we may be able to expand the game in a way that’s more sensible from a travel, player workload, cost and time zone point of view, but that’s going to take some time,” Tew said.

NZR’s main problem is the guaranteed home advantage for the four conference winners after New Zealand teams occupied four of the top five places on the overall standings in 2016.

NZR are pushing instead for a straight top-eight play-off system which Tew argues would produce a fairer outcome. But the proposal is being opposed by Australia and South Africa.

“I’m stubborn and we’ll keep plugging away because we think it makes much more sense,” Tew said.

“It makes it a lot easier for the fans. They can almost disregard the complications of the conferences and just look at the log and say ‘is my team in the top eight’.”

Australia are not happy with the reduced number of money-spinning local derbies.

The Waratahs will only play their century-long rivals Queensland once this season and there is a solitary Waratahs-Brumbies match.

Super Rugby will further expand its boundaries when the Auckland Blues playing the Queensland Reds in Samoa in June while the Waikato Chiefs will take their game with the Canterbury Crusaders to Fiji.

With 15 players of Samoan heritage in Blues squad, American Samoa-born Jerome Kaino said they were looking forward to it.

“The possibility of having a fixture in the islands every year is really special for us, but also for Samoa, Fiji, whatever nation it is because they offer so much to our game here in New Zealand and it’s important that we give back,” Kaino said.

The new season kicks off with the Melbourne Rebels playing Auckland at home on Thursday, while the Wellington Hurricanes open their title defence against the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday.

Israel Dagg staying with All Blacks

February 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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All Blacks back Israel Dagg said Monday he had signed to stay in New Zealand until the end of 2019, turning down lucrative offers from overseas clubs.

Dagg

Retaining the 28-year-old is a major coup for New Zealand Rugby, which last week also secured fullback Ben Smith’s services until 2020.

Dagg said he had to weigh up accepting a well-paid contract offshore with staying with the All Blacks, who do not allow overseas-based players into the team.

“There’s no doubt that there were some attractive offers to consider,” he said.

“But at the end of the day I love my life here in New Zealand with my family, friends and teammates and I’m not ready to give that up.”

Dagg, who has played 61 Tests, has already experienced life without the All Blacks after being dropped for the 2015 World Cup campaign.

He bounced back determined to prove a point and was one of the All Blacks’ standouts last year.

“To have a player of Israel’s ability and versatility re-sign is a major lift for all levels of New Zealand rugby,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.

Dagg will also stay with his Canterbury Crusaders Super Rugby team.

Milner-Skudder extends NZ contract until 2019

January 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder has extended his contract with the Wellington Hurricanes and New Zealand Rugby until after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

The 26-year-old, who burst onto the Super Rugby scene in 2015 with the Hurricanes and made the All Blacks that year, went on to start in the last World Cup final against Australia and scored a try in New Zealand’s 34-17 victory.

He played just two games for the Hurricanes last season before injuring his shoulder and was ruled out for the entire year, but is expected to be fit for the new season starting next month.

“Being part of the Hurricanes for the past three years has been an awesome experience and though I wasn’t able to play a big part on the field last year, winning the … Super Rugby trophy for the first time only reinforced my view that the club is building something special,” Milner-Skudder said.

“It’s been an absolute honour to represent my country and wear the All Blacks jersey and the only way to do that again is to stay in New Zealand.

“Hopefully I can play well enough to be considered for selection again, but as always there is some massive competition there, so my whole focus right now is just getting back on the field and trying to put my best foot forward with the Canes.”

The Hurricanes begin the defence of their Super Rugby title against Japan’s Sunwolves in Tokyo on Feb. 25.

All Blacks prop Faumuina to join French club Toulouse

December 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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New Zealand prop Charlie Faumuina has signed on with French club Toulouse but said Thursday he still wants to be available for the All Blacks when the British and Irish Lions tour next year.

Faumuina

The 46-Test veteran, who can play both sides of the scrum, will join Toulouse at the start of the next European season.

“I’m looking forward to my last season in New Zealand, making it a successful one with the Blues and hopefully getting the chance to play for the All Blacks,” he said in a statement.

The 30-year-old’s decision to leave New Zealand comes after first-choice tighthead prop Owen Franks confirmed he was staying through to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019.

Faumuina and Franks were both members of the All Blacks squad that retained the World Cup last year, with Faumuina taking the field as a replacement during the final against Australia.

His decision to leave at the end of next season leaves All Blacks coach Steve Hansen with the decision whether to retain Faumuina for the 2017 Tests or blood a new prop two years out from the next World Cup.

Faumuina said he was looking forward to joining Toulouse, one of the leading sides in the French Top 14 club championship table.

“Toulouse has a rich history and proud record. I have only heard good things from the people I talked to who played for the club and I’m sure the fans will support me,” Faumuina said.

“I’m sure I will enjoy the type of rugby they play. I know Toulouse is an ambitious club who aims to win titles. The Top 14 is a tough league, but I’m looking forward to play in such a competitive competition.”

Another three All Blacks — Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Aaron Cruden — are off contract next year and are also believed to be considering lucrative offers to join French clubs.

Habana to the rescue for embattled ‘Boks coach Coetzee

November 18, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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South Africa coach Allister Coetzee has embraced the return of wizard wing Bryan Habana as the wounded Springboks look to rebound from defeats to New Zealand and England by beating Italy on Saturday.

Habana

The pressure on Coetzee to revive an already ailing ‘Boks has intensified since a 37-21 defeat to England at Twickenham last week, their first in a decade, followed hot on the heels of a record 57-15 home mauling by the All Blacks in Durban.

Anything less than a convincing win against a new-look Azzurri in Florence could spell disaster for Coetzee in his first year as head coach.

Yet the 53-year-old insists “continuity” is crucial as they look to build for the future. As a result, Toulon’s Habana and Stormers loose forward Nizaam Carr are the only two changes to the team that started against England at Twickenham.

Habana will earn his 124th cap and is only three tries short of retired Japan wing Daisuke Ohata’s all-time test try tally of 69.

With captain and hooker Adriaan Strauss 59 appearances short of Habana’s 123-cap tally, Coetzee is counting on the 33-year-old Habana’s “management” skills in a “tough” game against an side still ailing from a 68-10 rout by the All Blacks in Rome a week ago.

“He understands what it takes, he’s a true professional and hopefully he can aid with the game management this week,” Coetzee said of Habana.

“This is not a test where you will see festival rugby, or think you’re just going to open up and score tries. It’s going to be a proper test match.

“With his experience, we’re will have to build an innings this weekend. There will be a lot of kicking from the Italians, but we can’t just start running from far out.

“No, we treat this game as one massive test.”

Although Italy will look to amend a largely under-par display against a New Zealand B side, Coetzee believes breaching their back line won’t be so easy.

“Don’t look at the score against New Zealand. They’ve kept their shape really well in defence in spite of being breached 10 times,” he added.

“So we will have to work hard to break that defence down.”

It will be crucial, too, says Coetzee, to cut out the errors that allowed England to score 23 unanswered points in a spell either side of half-time at a rain-swept Twickenham.

“Individual errors on the day, it just happens that the player didn’t get it right,” he said.

“But the players understand that you’ve got to swim, and swim very quickly.

“It’s going to be no different this weekend. We have to be more accurate in terms of execution when we have the ball and even when we don’t.”

Italy have played South Africa 12 times and lost on each occasion. And fans would be forgiven for believing an unlucky 13th is on the cards.

After replacing Jacques Brunel in July, coach Conor O’Shea insists the focus is still on trying to maintain a pre-set, disciplined gameplan for the full 80 minutes.

“I have huge confidence in the squad,” said O’Shea, who has recalled Giovanbattista Venditti to replace Angelo Esposito on the left wing while Francesco Minto comes off the bench to replace Maxime Mbanda in the back row.

Treviso’s Ornel Gega has already replaced injured hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini at hooker while Sami Panico has come in for injured prop Andrea Lovotti.

He aded: “It will sound strange after a defeat like Saturday’s, but against the All Blacks we laid some foundations that we intend to fully develop with the players here who will represent the future of the squad.”

But if South Africa are to avoid adding further woe to Coetzee’s embattled tenure, they will have to find consistency as well, said Habana.

“I’ve played against Italy twice in Italy and not only do they get fired up before the game, they bring intensity into the game too,” he said.

“We understand this is the biggest game of our season, given the year we’ve had. We have to show improvement in all areas on Saturday.

“We have a lot of respect for them. We have to play rugby for 80 minutes.”

All Blacks’ Irish revenge on hold for Italy test

November 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Thoughts of avenging a first defeat to Ireland in over a century will take a back seat, for 80 minutes at least, when the All Blacks face new-look Italy on Saturday.

Ireland

New Zealand’s impressive streak of 18 consecutive Test victories was ended last week when they lost to Ireland for the first time in 111 years.

On Saturday, when former Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea leads out a largely youthful and untested Italy at the Stadio Olimpico, an All Black rout may well ensue.

But coach Steve Hansen believes New Zealand, whose 40-29 collapse to Ireland in Chicago was put down to “mental fatigue” and their “predictable” game, will have to step up their performance if they’re to avoid another upset.

“It will be a tough game,” Hansen said. “We have got to improve our performance from last week.”

Anyone thinking New Zealand didn’t already have one eye on a highly-anticipated revenge match in Dublin on November 19 has been given food for thought.

Hansen has made 12 changes for the Italy game, suggesting a fully fired-up All Blacks will grace the Aviva Stadium.

Former Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris says they will arrive “a bit like a wounded animal”, adding: “The whole of Irish rugby was on a high over the weekend but the boys will be aware that the All Blacks can score from anywhere at any stage of the game.”

Hansen defended his selection strategy in midweek, but said a win and a return to their usual, world-beating standards would be more than welcome.

“We always had the plan to pick this side,” Hansen said after announcing his starting XV.

“This is the team we thought would be right for Italy and nothing that happened in Chicago has changed that.

“Whilst it is not the same people playing, it is the same jersey and the same expectation, so this group has got to go out and get back to the type of rugby we want to play and to the standard we want to play at.”

New Zealand will notably see flanker Sam Cane skipper the side for the second time while hooker Liam Coltman and teenage wing Rieko Ioane will be hoping to make international debuts from the bench after being named in the match-day 23.

Italy captain Sergio Parisse, meanwhile, is set to overtake fellow veteran Martin Castrogiovanni, who is not selected, to earn a record 120th cap.

O’Shea, who has injected a fair bit of renewed belief, if not yet results, into Italy’s squad, is mostly gambling on a youthful line-up sprinkled with a few old heads.

Notably, the Irishman has handed Treviso’s Giorgio Bronzini an international debut at scrum-half in an untested half-back partnership with Carlo Canna, who has only 12 caps to his name.

“A few months ago I was playing the Eccellenza league, now I’m about to line up against the world champions wearing the Italy jersey. It’s like a dream,” said Bronzini.

O’Shea’s back three of fullback Edoardo Padovani and wings Giulio Bisegni and Angelo Esposito have just 12 international appearances between them.

The second row combination of South African-born Andries Van Schalkyk and Marco Fuser is untried and flanker Maxime Mbanda will be making his first appearance on Italian soil after winning his first two caps against the USA and Canada.

More familiar heads include Australian-born Luke Mclean, who, along with veteran hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, wins his 82nd cap, at inside centre.

“O’Shea is building a great squad here, it’s a mix of really experienced guys and younger athletes with interesting potential,” said Ghiraldini.

“Conor is ambitious, and so we have to be even more so. There’s nothing better than playing at home, we’re fired up ready to give it everything.”

Whether that is enough for an upset remains to be seen as the All Blacks have never lost to the Italians.

Ireland stun New Zealand to claim first win over All Blacks

November 6, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Ireland ended a century-long losing streak to claim a historic first-ever win over New Zealand here Saturday, sending the All Blacks spinning to a 40-29 defeat with a scintillating display.

Ireland

Just days after the Windy City erupted in celebration after the Chicago Cubs landed their first World Series baseball crown in 108 years, Ireland booted their own 111-year rugby hoodoo firmly into touch.

Roared on by army of green-clad fans in a 62,300 crowd at Soldier Field, the Irish outscored the All Blacks by five tries to four to seal their first win over the Kiwis in the 29th instalment of a rivalry dating to 1905.

“It has been a long time coming and history (has been) made. We’re absolutely ecstatic,” Ireland skipper Rory Best said after leading his team on a raucous lap of honor at the famed NFL venue.

“We knew they are a great side. You can see how good a side they are and how much it means to our boys to have won that.”

Ireland were forced to cling on in the closing stages after a ferocious New Zealand fightback, which saw the All Blacks recover from a 30-8 deficit to go within four points at 33-29 with around 15 minutes to go.

But with the crowd roaring them home, Ireland scored a fifth and final try through outstanding center Robbie Henshaw, converted by replacement fly-half Joey Carbery, to clinch a famous victory.

It was New Zealand’s first defeat since their loss to Australia in August 2015.

Only last month, the All Blacks had set a world record for consecutive victories with their 18th win in a row.

New Zealand’s preparations for the Test had been thrown into disarray by the absence through injury of first choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

The further absence of second row Luke Romano following a family bereavement had forced them into starting a makeshift pairing of Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipulotu.

But New Zealand coach Steve Hansen refused to blame the injury crisis for the loss.

“The right side won,” Hansen said. “The Irish side played very well and congratulations to them.

“We don’t want to use (the injuries) as an excuse. We trained well enough, we prepared well enough, we thought. We’re not going to make any excuses about not having the right people.”

The moments before the match had seen Ireland pay an emotional tribute to beloved former international Anthony Foley, who died suddenly last month at the age of 42.

As New Zealand lined up to perform their traditional haka, Ireland’s players stood before them in a figure of eight — a reference to Foley’s position.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” Best said. “There was a lot of emotion.”

Once the game got under way, Ireland wasted no time in exploiting New Zealand’s weakness at second row.

Johnny Sexton kicked Ireland ahead with a penalty after only four minutes when French referee Mathieu Raynal whistled the All Blacks for not rolling away at the breakdown.

But New Zealand hit back immediately with the opening try of the game, George Moala finishing off after Waisake Naholo’s electrifying break.

Fly-half Beauden Barrett scuffed his conversion attempt to leave New Zealand’s lead at 5-3.

Ireland were then handed a crucial advantage after All Black prop Joe Moody was sin-binned for a clear tip tackle on Henshaw.

The ensuing 10-minute period saw Ireland score 12 unanswered point through tries from Jordi Murphy and C.J. Stander to make it 15-5.

Barrett closed the gap to seven points with a penalty after Ireland were offside but Sexton restored Ireland’s 10-point lead with a further three-pointer.

Ireland were forced to make a change in the 26th minute when Murphy was stretchered off with what looked like a knee injury, replaced by Josh van der Flier.

But the disruption was fleeting, with scrum-half Conor Murray dummying Aaron Smith to scamper over for Ireland’s third try. Sexton converted to make it 25-8 at half-time.

The second half began with New Zealand looking sharper and faster, but it was Ireland who scored next, Sexton feeding Simon Zebo for 30-8.

Yet New Zealand roared back through tries from replacement scrum-half T.J Perenara and Ben Smith to take the score to 30-22.

A Murray penalty put Ireland 33-22 ahead but a 64th minute try by All Black debutant lock Scott Barrett, took New Zealand back to 33-27.

Brother Beauden added the conversion and New Zealand were suddenly within four.

Ireland’s defenders resisted furious late pressure, though, and Henshaw crashed over with four minutes to go to complete a magnificent win.

Fearless Irish ready for All Blacks

November 5, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Ireland captain Rory Best says his team will not fear New Zealand as they chase an elusive first ever victory over the world champions in Chicago Saturday.

Ireland

The veteran hooker, who earns his 98th cap at Soldier Field, said the Irish would take a positive mindset into their latest attempt to end a 111-year losing streak.

“We’ve got to respect them but we can’t go out and fear them,” Best told a press conference.

“We’ve got to go out and have our gameplan, stick to it rigidly and ultimately beat the All Blacks.”

New Zealand, who clinched back-to-back World Cup crowns in 2015, arrive in Chicago on the back of a record winning streak.

The New Zealanders have compiled 18 consecutive victories and are favorites to record a 19th against Ireland, who have never beaten the Kiwis in 28 meetings since 1905.

If Ireland are to stand any chance of an upset, Best believes his men will have to play a near-flawless game.

“From what I’ve seen over the Rugby Championship you’ve got to minimise the amount of unforced errors you have,” Best said.

“They’re going to create chances. You can’t then gift them chances on top of that.”

Former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick recently described the current All Blacks team as the greatest ever, an assessment that Best was reluctant to contradict.

“It’s kind hard when you’re comparing back through generations. But there’s no doubt that this All Black team is an extremely talented team that know how to win games of rugby, and know how to win well.

“And if Sean Fitzpatrick is saying they’re the best team then they would have to be close to it.”

Best was a member of the Ireland starting line-up on the last occasion the two teams met, in Dublin in 2013, when the host nation suffered a 24-22 defeat with the final kick of the match.

Best was forced out of that contest after 15 minutes with a broken arm. At 34, Best knows that time is running out if he is to be part of a victorious Ireland team against New Zealand.

The fact Ireland have been unable to break their All Blacks hoodoo vexes him.

“Having played in a lot of very good Irish teams it seems strange that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks,” he said.

“We’ve come close a few times. We see ourselves as a top tier nation and we’ve shown it. It’s almost like we’ve shown it against everyone except the All Blacks.

“That side of things is disappointing.”

Nevertheless, Best said Ireland are determined not to let the millstone of history weigh heavily.

“History is history. We can’t affect that,” Best said.

“All that we can affect is what happens on Saturday. It’s disappointing that we’ve never beaten New Zealand but we have a chance now to change that.”

For Best though, the All Blacks retain an aura which he first encountered as a boy when watching the New Zealanders on their 1989 end-of-season tour, when they won all 14 matches.

That included the famous Test against Ireland at Lansdowne Road, when Irish skipper Willie Anderson marched his team into the middle of the All Blacks’ pre-match Haka.

“It always was special when the All Blacks came to town,” Best said.

“I remember the Willie Anderson one where they charged the Haka. It was all about blood and thunder for as long as they could hold out.”

The advances of the professional era have leveled the playing field since then, Best said.

“Physically we’re more than able to do it,” he said. “It’s just mentally if we can stay in the game.”

All Blacks crush Australia for record 18th straight win

October 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Julian Savea’s stunning late try double ended Australian resistance as the All Blacks claimed a world-record 18th consecutive victory with a crushing 37-10 win in Auckland on Saturday.

Savea

It was hardly vintage All Blacks and the tense game at Eden Park wasn’t settled until Savea’s game-breaking effort in the second half, scoring two tries and setting up a third.

But the ultimately convincing win rewrites the record books for Steve Hansen’s side, who surpass the top-tier record winning streak of 17 set by the All Blacks of 1965-1969 and matched twice since.

The All Blacks hit the front in the fifth minute when Israel Dagg scored and they never surrendered the lead, but for long periods Australia dictated terms and only stout defence earned the All Blacks their place in history.

They were only ahead 15-10 — after Australia had had a try disallowed by the TV match official — and defending constantly with 25 minutes to play when Savea burst into life.

There were questions ahead of the game whether the Wallabies would prove giantkillers, having stymied the All Blacks three times in recent years when the record was on the cards.

But Bernard Foley missed two close-range penalties and a Henry Speight try was disallowed when the TV official judged that Dane Haylett-Petty blocked Savea as he chased Speight.

For all their attacking flaws, sloppy discipline and rushed decision-making, the All Blacks scored six tries with Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, TJ Perenara, Savea (twice) and Dane Coles all crossing the line.

Aaron Cruden, brought off the bench early in the second half after Beauden Barrett missed the first three conversions, added seven points with the boot.

Rory Arnold scored Australia’s only try with Foley adding a conversion and penalty.

The Test record caps a remarkable 12 months in which the All Blacks became the first team to successfully defend the World Cup, retained the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup for a 14th consecutive year and won the Rugby Championship for the fourth time in five years.

Since Hansen took over as head coach after the All Blacks won the 2011 World Cup, the side has lost only three of 64 matches.

The Wallabies had the first opportunity to score only for Foley to hook a 33-metre penalty and the All Blacks responded immediately, exposing the Wallaby centres with two smart tries.

Ben Smith ran around Reece Hodge to put Dagg over wide out for the first touchdown and four minutes later Lienert-Brown, taking a short pass from Ryan Crotty, zipped past Samu Kerevi for the second.

For 15 minutes through the middle of the first half the Wallabies enjoyed a measure of control and they eventually broke the All Blacks defence when Arnold used all of his 2.08 metres (6ft 9in) to stretch out and score in the 28th minute.

They had a chance to turn it into a 10-point try, as Kieran Read was penalised in a confrontation on the line, but Hodge was astray with his long-range attempt at the restart.

The All Blacks struck back immediately with scrum-half Perenara charging down a Hodge clearing kick, regathering the ball and running in the All Blacks’ third try.

Foley landed a penalty early in the second half and Australia continued to keep pressure on the All Blacks until Smith broke out from his own 22 and set up Savea’s first try.

The big wing smashed through Speight and Nick Frisby for his second and then sent Coles over to settle the outcome.

Australia delay naming of side for All Blacks clash

October 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Australia rugby coach Michael Cheika has raised the stakes in his psychological battle with New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen by delaying the naming of his team for Saturday’s test at Eden Park until Friday.

Cheika

Test sides are traditionally named on the Thursday before a match and while Cheika has often delayed firming up his replacements bench, leaving the matchday squad announcement until the eve of the contest is a new twist.

All Blacks coach Hansen, whose side will be aiming for a top tier record 18th successive test victory in Auckland, earlier played a few mind games of his own by suggesting a few selections he thought Cheika would make.

Hansen said he thought New Zealand-born flyhalf Quade Cooper would be dropped, with Bernard Foley moving back into the number 10 shirt from the inside centre berth he occupied for most of the Rugby Championship.

Cooper has often struggled for the Wallabies in the land of his birth, where he was dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” during the 2011 World Cup.

“I’m picking they’ll play two big guys in the midfield,” Hansen told the New Zealand media on Thursday.

“They’ll play Foley at first-five and give Quade a rest for this one (and) someone like (Reece) Hodge or either one of the Fijian boys in the midfield to try to get some go-forward which is probably something they lacked in the first two tests.”

Samu Kerevi took over at outside centre from his fellow Fiji-born back Tevita Kuridrani for the second of the two drubbings at the hands of New Zealand with which Australia opened the Rugby Championship in August.

Regardless of whether he rejigs his backline, Cheika must decide whether to bring standout loose forward David Pocock into the starting line-up after his recovery from injury.

He must also replace Will Genia, who has returned to club duties in France, at scrumhalf.

The two Rugby Championship victories ensured that New Zealand will retain the Bledisloe Cup, which they have held since 2003, regardless of the result of Saturday’s test.

Australia have not beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1986.

All Blacks drop Aaron Smith over toilet tryst

October 6, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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The All Blacks suspended halfback Aaron Smith Thursday over a toilet tryst with a woman at a busy airport, in the latest scandal to hit the beleaguered New Zealand Rugby union.

Smith

Coach Steve Hansen said the 54-Test veteran breached team standards and his fellow players felt he should be punished.

“As a result Smith was not considered for selection for this weekend’s Durban Test,” Hansen said as the world champions prepare for their Rugby Championship Test match against South Africa.

Hansen said Smith was seen entering a toilet cubicle with a woman at Christchurch Airport the day after the Test against South Africa in the South Island city last month.

Commentators said it continued a “season from hell” for New Zealand Rugby (NZR) after incidents involving Waikato Chiefs players and a stripper, followed by a teenage star’s violent rampage.

New Zealand media ran grainy mobile phone photographs of Smith, 27, and the woman leaving the airport’s disabled cubicle after about 10 minutes.

“This was not discreet, it was 2pm on a Sunday where there were a lot of children and fans around,” a unnamed witness told the New Zealand Herald.

“He was in his full All Blacks uniform and there was not an ounce of remorse or regret on his face.”

It is not Smith’s first brush with controversy. In 2014, he said he was “hugely embarrassed” after a naked selfie emerged on social media but insisted he had learnt his lesson.

He will face a misconduct hearing on his return to New Zealand.

NZR chief executive Steve Tew said: “This was really bad decision-making by Aaron which reflects poorly on him, and on the team.”

Tew faced criticism from women’s groups last month over NZR’s handling of a stripper’s allegations that Chiefs players sexually assaulted her during a team night out.

And last week, the organisation made a clumsy U-turn after initially standing by promising teenager Losi Filipo over a vicious street attack on four people, including two woman, in Wellington.

Filipo’s contract was eventually terminated after a massive public backlash.

Fairfax Media rugby writer Duncan Johnstone said NZR would be fuming over Smith’s latest indiscretion.

“This has hit them at their highest level -– their beloved All Blacks, their global face and marketing giant, the pillar of their revenue,” he wrote.

Herald columnist Chris Rattue said rugby was “turning into a national embarrassment” and needed to come down hard on Smith.

“Smith has treated his partner, the public, his teammates and the All Black fans with contempt,” he said. “He is coming across as an arrogant prat.”

NZR has long prided itself on its off-field discipline, espousing the mantra “better people make better All Blacks”.

However, with the squeaky-clean image in danger of becoming tarnished, Tew said he had called a review.

“We are taking action to improve the culture of our game and are about to embark on an independent review of respect and responsibility in our professional player environment,” he said.

“We have drafted the terms of reference and are currently talking to prospective panel members. We will provide an update on this shortly.”

Three-try blitz sets up All Blacks triumph

October 2, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Title-holders New Zealand scored three late first-half tries to set up a 36-17 Rugby Championship triumph over Argentina in Buenos Aires Saturday.

Barret

Two yellow cards to the All Blacks aided the Pumas as they staged a comeback from 29-3 behind at half-time to outscore their rivals during the second half without ever threatening to win.

Victory moved New Zealand, who clinched the southern hemisphere title in the previous round, closer to a world-record 18 consecutive victories.

The reigning world champions will achieve that feat if they defeat South Africa in Durban next Saturday and Australia in Auckland on October 22.

New Zealand needed just 124 seconds to go ahead as Argentina flanker Pablo Matera was penalised and fly-half Beauden Barrett slotted an easy penalty.

Argentina responded with plenty of ball-in-hand attacks and skipper Agustin Creevy was unlucky when incorrectly penalised with the try-line in his sights.

The speed with which the All Blacks attacked whichever Puma had possession was a feature of the first quarter, as was the power of Argentine No. 8 Facundo Isa during his surges.

When New Zealand were awarded a close-range penalty in front of the posts after 24 minutes they opted for a scrum.

A second penalty in almost the same position resulted in another scrum and this time the gamble of seeking seven points instead of a safe three paid off as Anton Lienert-Brown dived over and Barrett converted.

Argentine toil deserved some reward, though, and they trimmed the 10-point deficit by three when fly-half Nicolas Sanchez effortlessly stroked a penalty between the posts.

Winger Israel Dagg was stopped just short of the Argentine try-line, but it would not be long before New Zealand unleashed their full attacking might with devastating effect.

The first of the three tries came gift-wrapped from Pumas hooker and skipper Agustin Creevy.

He overthrew at a line-out just metres close to his line, All Blacks skipper and No. 8 Kieran Read stole the ball and set in motion a move that ended with centre Ryan Crotty dotting down.

Lienert-Brown set up the next try by blocking a kick from rival centre Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Dagg broke free to send hooker Dane Coles over.

Barrett converted both tries and the clinical finishing of the visitors had created a 24-3 advantage as half-time neared.

But the men in black were not thinking of the break and struck again when a Crotty break down the left culminated in scrum-half TJ Perenara darting over.

Barrett failed for the first time with a shot at goal, his conversion veering right, but New Zealand had a 26-point half-time advantage.

The rampant visitors scored again five minutes into the second half as Lienert-Brown shrugged off two tackles to create a try for full-back Ben Smith and Barrett kicked his fourth conversion.

New Zealand were temporarily reduced to 14 men when prop Joe Moody was sin-binned for swinging an arm at Sanchez in an off-the-ball incident.

His absence was quickly felt as Isa scored a pushover try beside the post that Sanchez converted.

Loose forward Liam Squire later became the second All Black to be sin-binned and full-back Joaquin Tuculet scored an Argentine try which Iglesias converted.

Serena picks Auckland for Aussie Open warm-up

September 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Serena Williams will headline the Auckland Classic in January, organisers said Wednesday, hailing her appearance as a major coup for the New Zealand tournament.

Serena

The 22-time Grand Slam winner has never played in the January 2-7 tournament before, preferring to warm-up for the Australian Open at the Hopman Cup in Perth in recent years.

“We are obviously over the moon with this news. Serena is one of the biggest sporting stars on the planet,” tournament director Karl Budge said.

Williams, the reigning Wimbledon champion, is currently ranked number two in the world after Angelique Kerber broke her 186-week reign at the top.

She is likely to regain the number one spot if she can claim a seventh Australian Open crown at the season-opening Grand Slam in Melbourne.

The 35-year-old American said a good run in Auckland would set her up well for a tilt at her 23rd major, giving her sole custody of the Open-era record she currently shares with Steffi Graf.

“(It’s) the first event of the year. It can really set you up for a great run in Melbourne and I will be looking to start my year strongly in Auckland,” she said.

“I am really excited to be coming to Auckland for the first time. I have heard so many great things about the city and the tournament itself and I have always wanted to play there.”

Confident All Blacks want big start against Springboks

September 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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New Zealand captain Kieran Read has hammered home the message he does not want a repeat of last week’s start against Argentina when they play South Africa in Christchurch on Saturday.

Barrett

The All Blacks are confident they can take the Springboks in the fourth-round Rugby Championship match and possibly wrap up the title if Australia beat Argentina in the other match.

However, Read said they do not want another slow start after slipping behind Argentina three times in the first 50 minutes of their last match before eventually taking command to pull off a convincing 57-22 victory.

He said they need a strong opening against a Springbok side looking to atone for consecutive losses against Argentina and Australia.

“We don’t really want to be focusing too much on them but if we can get a start in terms of our physicality and a bit of intensity in our own play then the scoreboard does funny things to teams,” Read said Friday as the All Blacks wrapped up training.

“If we can get a lead obviously that helps, but we know it will take a big effort against the Boks tomorrow night.”

The All Blacks are rated overwhelming favourites to extend their winning streak, which currently stands at 14, with the misfiring Springboks under attack for their woeful return of one win from three matches.

Former South Africa coach Nick Mallett has branded then a “B division” outfit, saying they were shown up last week by “a poor Australian side, lacking confidence”.

But Read did not accept the criticism, believing the Springboks would find an extra gear to face the All Blacks.

“This Springboks team will be pretty eager to prove some people wrong,” he said, adding the All Blacks remained confident.

“I don’t think I’ve ever not had that feeling in an All Blacks jersey. We go out every game, some games are a lot harder and tougher than others, but you always have confidence in your own ability as a group.

“Tomorrow is no different, but in saying that it doesn’t mean we don’t respect what the opposition is going to throw at us.”

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