Rugby World Cup

British bollocks marks start of World Cup phony war

Canon Rugby in Focus: The British press campaign to get under the All Blacks' skins is underway

The British bollocks has begun and it’s only going to get worse.

The All Blacks fly to Japan this morning, two weeks out from their first World Cup match, against South Africa.

The Springboks are a long-time rival, an arch foe, but they won’t be the only one in Japan.

And I’m not talking Ireland, now No.1 in the world, or Wales, who are coached by the increasingly acerbic Warren Gatland.

Or England and their smiling Aussie coach Eddie Jones, or Australia, or even France - who have, on and off, been an All Blacks’ nemesis at World Cups.

No, it’s the British media who will be a persistent thorn in the All Blacks' side, pricking away at different times, looking to upset and derail their plans for a historic third World Cup win in succession.

Stuart Barnes kicked it off with his assertion that the All Blacks push the boundaries at the breakdown with their openside flankers especially adept at being “cynical cheats”.

It’s why, he claimed, Steve Hansen was taking three openside flankers to Japan.

"There's no McCaw this time but there are three opensides, all breakdown experts,” Barnes said in a staggering case of stating the obvious.

“The tournament will be won by the team that controls the tempo of the game — and the breakdown is the heartbeat of ball in play — but also the area of contentious calls that will be made by officials aware of what their masters want."

Stop the press! The All Blacks loose forwards try to control the game’s tempo. What next? The front row will look to dominate in the scrums?

This sort of drivel will be water off a duck’s back for the All Blacks, who have been called cheats for as long as the game’s been played. It’s a regular ‘go-to’ for British writers who need to fill a few column inches and can’t muster an original thought.

Next will be an attack on the haka as it gives the All Blacks an unfair advantage, then they’ll be accused of being unsmiling giants.

Another predictable doozy will be how New Zealand rugby plunders the Pacific Islands of players - a fact that ignores historical migration and is especially ironic from journalists whose home team has Manusamoa Tualigi in its ranks!

Toss into that mix claims that little old ladies found sipping tea in Matamata truck stops are experts on the game because it’s a religion and an obsession in New Zealand, and that should round out the predictable stereotype puffery heading the All Blacks way.

Most of the players will be unaware of what is being said or written about them unless it pops up on Twitter or Instagram.

They live in a bubble of hotels and training fields that is rarely pricked from the outside, with some players only aware of what’s happening in the world around them if they see it on social media.

For Hansen that’s a good thing, though the coach will read every word that’s written and fire back when he deems the time is right.

Hansen’s never missed the chance to ‘correct’ a journalist and that won’t change in the next two months, his last as All Blacks coach.

He also knows the best response to any jibes from scribes is on the field, where the All Blacks are intent on creating history in Japan.

Hansen has a smorgasboard of selection options, especially in the backs where he can start Ben Smith at fullback, and either Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga at first five, with the other on the bench.

That’s the set up I favour and I don’t really care whether Barrett or Mo’unga starts. I just think having one on the bench provides the opportunity for impact late in the match - which history shows can be vital.

As impressive as the All Blacks were in the 92-7 romp against Tonga in Hamilton, their scoring rate dropped away in the second half.

Part of that is natural as it is hard to stay focused when the scoreboard is out-pacing the clock. But the bench have to influence the game, changing the tempo and intensity, even if the score is lopsided.

Hansen, I suspect, will opt for his dual pivots in the opening test against the Springboks, with Barrett at fullback.

Either way, Sevu Reece and George Bridge have to start on the wings against South Africa after impressing, again, in Hamilton.

The match was disappointing as Tonga failed to exert any sort of pressure on the All Blacks, but it did allow Smith to re-find a bit of confidence.

It also showed that, while Bridge and Reece are superb finishers, they are also good at creating space for others.

And we saw that Ardie Savea will be used out wide at the World Cup where his pace gives the All Blacks something few other teams have.

He had a hand in setting up a couple of tries and he scorched away to score one himself, but was also effective at the breakdown and, in the rare moments Tonga had the ball, on defence.

The All Blacks will look to play at pace, real pace, in the heat and humidity of Japan.

When quizzed about his props after the match, Hansen lauded trainer Nic Gill for getting their weight and bulk down, and speed and agility up.

If proof was needed that the All Blacks will look to run teams off their feet in Japan, there it was.

Perhaps they will play at such a pace the Brits will accuse them of being too quick and skillful for the games to be a fair contest.

It’s ridiculous, of course, but no more stupid than some of the claims that will be flung at the All Blacks during the course of the tournament.

The British bollocks has begun.

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