OPINION: First things first. The All Blacks will be undercooked for their Rugby World Cup quarterfinal next Saturday night in Tokyo. They just have to hope that even half-baked they will be too much for Ireland, Japan or Scotland to handle.
The back-to-back champions’ preparation for the first knockout match of this now heavily contentious global tournament was thrown into turmoil with the controversial – but understandable – decision by World Rugby to cancel the two Saturday pool matches most affected by Super Typhoon Hagibis.
That was the All Blacks’ closing Pool B fixture against Italy in Toyota – expected to cop a lashing from the typhoon – and England’s last Pool C affair against cross-channel rivals France.
The England-France cancellation was relatively painless, with both sides guaranteed to progress to the quarterfinals anyway and Les Bleus seemingly content enough to sidle through as No 2 seeds for a quarterfinal matchup against Wales.
But the historic cancellations have upset the Italians who were a long shot to make the quarterfinals, providing they took care of the small matter of beating the All Blacks with a bonus point, and other things went their way. They are ropable to have been denied at least a crack.
Regardless, the All Blacks box on and must now make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. They haven’t played a competitive test since the tournament-opening 23-13 victory over the Springboks on September 21 and will run out next Saturday having gone 13 days since a game.
The frontliners that sat out what turned out to be their pool finale against Namibia on October 6, including skipper Kieran Read, star back Beauden Barrett, No 10 Richie Mo’unga and veteran midfielder Sonny Bill Williams, won’t have played a match in two and a-half weeks. Rest is good, but rust can be a worry.
Then there’s the incoming typhoon to factor in. The weather was pleasant enough for the All Black to fit in what was expected to be a highly physical training session on Friday morning – coach Steve Hansen was cagey about what form that would take, though ruled out bringing in opposition – but they were expected to be confined to their bunkers on Saturday while the weather raged through Tokyo.
They were unsure what Sunday would allow, but hoped to fit in another session before resuming a normal test week building on Monday.
“It’s just something we’ve got to adapt to,” said veteran lock Sam Whitelock ahead of Friday’s hitout. “The main thing is nailing each day. I’m pretty sure they’ll replicate some in-game things [today], the forwards will do some scrums, lineouts and mauls which will be pretty close to live intensity.”
Whitelock admitted it was a less than ideal situation for the All Blacks, but one they had no choice but to take in their stride. On the positive side they’re fresh, have 31 fit players and there are no judicial issues floating over anyone’s head.
“Every team given what you would ideally want would have loved to play,” said the 115-test veteran. “We just have to deal with what we’ve been dealt. We do it in the Rugby Championship – play two weeks, have a week off and come back, so we should be in a good space.”
Veteran back-three utility Ben Smith echoed the laid-back attitude of these All Blacks. They always knew the real World Cup didn’t start until next week, and an unexpected free pass there has to be taken in their stride.
“We’d rather be playing, but since we’re not playing it gives us a bit more time to get prepared for next week and put those plans in place,” he said.
“It’s a weird feeling not playing a game but the call has been made, and it’s now about doing today right, getting an extra training in this morning and going from there.”
Added to the complexity of the situation was the typhoon about to rage about them, likely preventing anything resembling outdoor activity for large parts of Saturday.
“It’s probably a bit of the unknown,” added Smith. “We’re not too sure about these typhoons. The talk is about bunkering down tomorrow and seeing what happens.”
Whitelock said he would be following whatever instruction he was given.
“We’ve got to trust the people that know what’s coming. I’ve never been in a typhoon, so I just listen to the people that know and take their advice.
“I know there’s some disappointed people out there. People who have travelled from all around the world to watch a couple of games are going to miss out. But that comes second. It’s not just about rugby, it’s about people’s safety and I fully understand where the decision has come from.”
These are interesting times indeed. Not your usual buildup to the knockout stages of the World Cup. All about adaptability for a well-rested All Blacks outfit.
This content was originally published here.