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Rieko Ioane takes some selfies with fans following an All Blacks public training session in Bordeaux.
Small steps. Big intentions. That’s very much the theme of the All Blacks’ sojourn into wine country in the southwest of France for their bye week of the Rugby World Cup.
Star backs Richie Mo’unga and Rieko Ioane made it clear after Monday’s public training session at Stade Chaban-Delmas, which drew close to 10,000 eager locals to lap up their every move, that this was far from a sashay away from the intensity of the global tournament, despite the absence of a game at the end of the week.
“Some words were shared to the group around the purpose of this week,” said Mo’uga after a breezy session that thrilled the fans, many clad in the black jerseys of the New Zealanders. “It’s about every session being purposeful and having big intentions around building blocks for our game and our DNA.
“We want to leave Bordeaux a better footy side, and I think having a bit of time away from footy will do that as well, if we get the balance right. But as soon as we step on the field we flick the switch and we’re zoned in.”
The All Blacks, who are 1-1 in Pool A after following their opening defeat to France with a 71-3 thumping of Namibia in Toulouse, resume the tournament with a pivotal clash against Italy in Lyon on September 29. It’s effectively a sudden-death decider to decide a quarterfinal spot, with the improving Azzurri clearly having the New Zealanders’ attention.
Forwards coach Jason Ryan labelled the Italy clash “one of our biggest in a long time” and head coach Ian Foster has used similar language. Clearly they are wary that anything less than a dialled-in effort could open the door to an historic World Cup pool-stage exit which would be a calamitous end to a problematic cycle.
The Bordeaux breakaway, mainly seen as a key change of scenery from their Lyon base to which they will return on Saturday, is a mixture of downtime, with two big training days on Wednesday and Friday. It is those that the coaches view as important strides into Italy week, especially with skipper Sam Cane, midfielder Jordie Barrett, loosie Shannon Frizell and prop Tyrel Lomax all potentially returning to the mix for the first time this tournament.
The All Blacks, of course, have to conclude pool play without the services of top loosehead prop Ethan de Groot who has been suspended two matches for his dangerous tackle against Namibia that earned him a red card.
“We know if we leave this week a better team than what we’ve arrived as, the only thing left for us is just getting that performance right,” said experienced midfielder Rieko Ioane. “It’s about the building blocks in our game.”
Added Mo’unga: “This week is labelled a bye week, but we still want to be very purposeful with our trainings, and have a lot of meaning to everything we do.”
Both Ioane and Mo’unga backed looseheads Ofa Tuungafasi and Tamaiti Williams to step into the breach created by de Groot’s enforced absence.
“Ofa and I came into the All Blacks the same year (2016),” said Ioane. “He’s come on in leaps and bounds in terms of leadership, especially among the props. He’s an influential voice, and you saw what he did on Friday with our scrum. I’m sure that whoever is chosen will do the job.”
Mo’unga also backed the 23-year-old, 144kg Williams to deliver in his first World Cup appearance.
“The fact Tams hasn’t changed in terms of his energy, he’s not uptight or any quieter than he usually is … that’s a really good sign that he’s in a good space. That’s kudos to the other props that make him feel that way. Whatever happens for him, he is ready to get a crack in this World Cup.”
Mo’unga also said de Groot’s suspension served as a timely wake-up call for everyone in the squad as they build towards a potential blockbuster quarterfinal against either world No 1 Ireland or No 2 South Africa.
“It’s a really good reminder that we’ve got to be better in that space. It’s an area of the game that’s being cracked down on, and we’ve got to show better pictures to the TMO and in replays that we’re trying to make a good effort in keeping things safe.”
Mo’unga was asked by a local reporter what he knew of the Bordeaux region. “There is a lot of wine here,” he replied in a snap. “That’s all I know, to be honest.”
The All Blacks’ hope is that they will be able to raise a glass soon enough to time well spent in its midst.
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