New Zealand back-row colossus Kieran Read has targeted an improvement from the All Blacks at next year’s World Cup.
The reigning world champions continue to set standards that no other team can match, and they will surely return to Europe in ten months’ time as red-hot tournament favourites.
Victories during the last three weekends against England, Scotland and Wales might not have seen the All Blacks produce sustained vintage rugby, but it was still too much for their rivals.
No team has successfully defended the Webb Ellis Trophy during Rugby World Cup’s 27-year existence, yet few would bet against Read and company achieving that feat next autumn.
“I think we will need to be better [at the World Cup],” said the No 8, whose late try against Wales came as part of a blistering finish when New Zealand scored 19 unanswered points in seven minutes after Wales led 16-15. “We will take a few lessons out of the teams we’ve played up here the last few weeks. We will have to adapt to who we play. It’s tight at the top. Anyone in the top six or seven nations are good enough. We just have to keep playing well and keep improving.”
The breathless Millennium Stadium finale again underlined that New Zealand never know when they are beaten. There was no panic as the clock ticked down, no rash decisions, just clear, composed thinking under pressure.
“I think it is ingrained in us from an early age,” Read added. “The All Blacks is the team you want to play for, and when you come in you want to add to the legacy that has gone before you.
“The expectation is always there as an All Black side. When you run out you have got to win that game, no matter who you are playing against. That is the expectation we have as players and as a team every week.
“You make sure you prepare as best you can, and in the end it is about going out there and playing well. There are really no excuses from our point of view.”
Read saluted Wales for the part they played in a ferocious encounter, but Warren Gatland’s team once again came up short.
“It was tough and physical,” he said. “They put pressure on us in a few different areas that we probably didn’t respond to early enough. They played really well. It took a bit longer than what we wanted to adapt to what they brought to us.
“We back ourselves as a squad. There were a few swings and roundabouts in the game, and it is about taking your opportunities when they arise.
“We are confident in our ability to play 80-plus minutes, and there is always a great bench to add some good impact as well. We are happy. We came here to get three wins, but it is a different kettle of fish when you come to a World Cup – it’s knockout games, anything can happen.”
There were two further reasons to celebrate for New Zealand, as they marked Richie McCaw’s 100th Test match as captain with victory and lock Brodie Retallick succeeded Read as International Rugby Board world player of the year.
“The boys certainly wanted to give him [McCaw] the right send-off in that game, and we were pretty fired up for him,” Reed added. “And I am really stoked for Brodie. He has been a rock all year for us, and it’s awesome for him to get that accolade.”
Wales lock Alun-Wyn Jones believes New Zealand are “probably 20 minutes ahead of everybody else” after giving emphatic notice that they remain a class apart.
For 69 minutes of a pulsating Millennium Stadium contest, Wales dared to dream. Having not beaten the All Blacks since 1953, mission improbable was in sight of being accomplished when Jones and company led 16-15 on the back of three Leigh Halfpenny penalties and a converted Rhys Webb try.
But New Zealand then flicked a switch, scoring three tries and 19 unanswered points as a capacity 74,500 crowd saw any hopes of witnessing history disappear without trace.
As against England and Scotland, the All Blacks failed to deliver an 80-minute performance, but it did not matter because they can win Test matches in the blink of an eye. “The scoreline showed they can just pull away in the last 20 minutes, as they have done before against other teams,” said Jones.
“I would say they are probably 20 minutes ahead of everybody else. I would like to think we can make up those 20 minutes. This was New Zealand’s last game of the year, and they have finished where they want to be. I think they will have a lot more question marks after the pressure they’ve taken in their last few games, and maybe against us to a degree. For 60 minutes, we can take quite a lot out of the game.”