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All Blacks find winning recipe

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NZPA     30 Jun 2005     allblacks.com gallery

In a week when not a lot has surprised All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, he took a double take at one journalist's question.

"Is this going to be the best All Blacks team ever?"

There was a quick response from Umaga, not one prone to hyperbole at the best of times.

"I think it's a bit early to be chucking titles like that around."

By just lately, reason for optimism cannot be ignored.

A 45-6 thumping of France in Paris, a 91-0 rout of Fiji in Albany, and a 21-3 crushing of the Lions in Christchurch by the world's No 1 ranked team will be remembered for different reasons.

But they shared a common trait. The team wearing black were in a class of their own.

Contrary to noises out of the Lions camp that All Blacks coach Graham Henry is a man under pressure, he was happy to sit down a day after their Jade Stadium triumph and discuss where his team is at.

Some insight was given into the methods that have transformed his team from a tired group in the Philips Tri Nations last year to one who have played their most recent opponents off the park in performances laced with speed and power.

Remarkably the All Blacks' tryline has barely been threatened, let alone crossed, in these last three Tests.

Yet defence is not at the heart of how Henry wants his men to play. In fact it's quite the opposite.

British purists will be aghast but it is flair, seen every week for three months in the Rebel Sport Super 12, which is giving New Zealand a natural advantage.

"There's a feeling in the UK that Super 12 is a 15-man game of sevens. But it does develop their rugby because they can catch and pass and run around at high speeds doing athletic, skilful things," says Henry, whose job is to marry that glitz with an increased focus on forward endeavour.

"We're trying to play a game that emphasises our strength. Our strength is to use the ball, keep it alive.

"We do a degree of tweaking but I think we're fortunate the players have gone through (Super 12) as part of their rugby development.

"You've still got to be able to do the hard yakka and have a presence up front, which is where your other people can run off that presence. If your platform is right, the rest of it comes together."

While Henry's predecessor John Mitchell also believed in fully employing the ample backline skills and pace at his disposal, his forward pack had chinks. Those were exposed most explicitly at lineout time and by a gold Australian defensive wall in the 2003 World Cup semifinal.

Under Henry, set piece accuracy is, naturally, fundamental. But equally so is the development of athletic forwards who can win that most important battle of the trenches -- for the advantage line.

Making an extra metre with the ball in hand and hitting harder in the tackle countless times can wear opponents down, and they can be broken apart by accurate off-loading in the tackle.

The latter is a key skill Henry brought from his short, successful tenure with Auckland and the Blues to the All Blacks and is the most effective way of piercing a flat, heavily numbered defensive screen.

Perhaps the two best players in the current All Blacks -- first five-eighth Daniel Carter and flanker Richie McCaw -- both reckon the playing style is spot on.

"If the opportunity's there to keep the ball alive and offload, that really puts the defence under a lot of stress," Carter says.

"We have a pretty strong attacking attitude here in New Zealand and keeping the ball alive is a big part of our game. We keep working on that and trying to do it on the pitch."

Playing expansively is not about entertaining but about winning, Carter says. He would be happy for the All Blacks to adopt a 10-man kicking game if it is successful.

"But more often than not there's opportunities out wide that you try and exploit," he says.

"You need the players to do that. A lot of the New Zealand players, their natural instinct is to have a bit of a crack themselves or look for the offload and have a good go with an attacking attitude.

"That is probably the way rugby is heading. A high-tempo game is the way to go, it gives the other team less time to react."

McCaw says the strides being made by the All Blacks forwards have him more excited than ever about the direction the All Blacks are heading. He said the pack was "humming along" better than he had seen in his four years in the side, thanks in part to consistent selection.

The same pack that smothered the Lions in Christchurch has been retained for the second Test in Wellington.

"Because the same guys are performing, we're able to build on it," he says.

"In the past, perhaps after Paris, it would have been a whole new set up and we would have started again.

"We want to aim to be the best."

The oldest member of the current All Blacks pack is lock Chris Jack who, at 26, would be among the juniors in the Lions eight.

"Time together makes up for the pack being a bit younger," McCaw says.

"When you're familiar with each other, all your energy goes into the pack performing rather than individuals worried about your back, about whether you're going to be in there next week."

This is a tight All Blacks group, and a professional one. After their Christchurch triumph, all the All Blacks were in bed by 1am, having joined guitar players Anton Oliver and Aaron Mauger for a team singalong.

Henry says the players will have time for "bit of a lear-up" after the Lions Series but were now professional enough to look after themselves in terms of behaviour and diet.

Another ingredient Henry has enhanced is leadership. He believed that was found wanting when Umaga and halfback Justin Marshall were injured and missing from the second half of their dark World Cup evening at Sydney.

After last year's Tri-Nations, the coachs and players recognised that changes were needed, notably lightening their physical workload and encouraging pursuits outside rugby.

And a leadership group was established -- a group of players including Umaga and his likely successor as captain McCaw -- charged with more responsibility for decisions made on and off the field.

A foundation is in place for the 2007 World Cup. Henry won't look that far ahead, not in the middle of the Lions series.

And Umaga won't go there full stop.

"I don't worry about (the future), I just worry about winning. That's up to the coaches, they look 3-4 years down the track. As a captain I'm just about making sure we get the performance on the day."