All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will have the World Cup on his mind throughout their four-Test tour.
The All Blacks’ season-ending tour will provide a road test for their World Cup title defence as they seek to stay one step ahead of a closing pack.
Coach Steve Hansen says he will treat Tests against England, Scotland and Wales next month like successive World Cup play-off games, coming a week after a Test against minnows United States.
The Chicago Test on November 1 mirrors the relatively light draw handed to New Zealand in World Cup pool play next year before what should be a sizeable step up to the quarter-finals.
That potential banana skin was emphasised in comments from Welsh coach Warren Gatland last week and Hansen says he wants his players to experience a leap in intensity against England at Twickenham on November 8.
The All Blacks are taking extra staff on the month-long tour, adding support personnel who will be involved at the World Cup to let them experience the venues and the team environment less than a year out from the tournament.
“It’s getting closer, isn’t it? You can just about reach out and touch it,” Hansen said.
On the field, Hansen expects more improvement from his team, who have been pushed to the limit this year following their perfect record in 2013.
A tight home series against England was followed by a Rugby Championship in which they lost to South Africa and drew with Australia. They needed a last-minute converted try to edge past Australia in Brisbane last weekend.
“South Africa are starting to play a running game. Australia and England are hanging onto the ball more,” Hansen said.
“We’ve been doing that for a while, but we have to evolve how we’re doing it, otherwise we become predictable.
“At the same time, you want to keep some things up your sleeve.”
Hansen says he was tempted to rest some players for the tour but was convinced by fitness coach Nic Gill to choose a full-strength squad and “manage” the workload of those showing signs of fatigue.
One player not in need of rugby is five-eighth Dan Carter, whose leg nerve damage is being assessed this week before he is cleared to tour.
Hansen has no qualms giving the injury-prone playmaking great extra leeway to tour, believing he can return to his best nearly a year since his last Test and three months since fracturing his leg in the Super Rugby final.
“One of the things we want is for him to be injury-free and playing with confidence.
“Once we get that, we’ll get the old Dan Carter back. We saw that starting to happen in Super Rugby.”