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'Low-key start, on and off the field': Our man reports from the All Blacks' sleepy London base

Away from their legion of adoring fans, the All Blacks can focus on the job at hand.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

– Rory Keane reports from The Lensbury in Teddington

THE ALL BLACKS have made a low-key start to the World Cup, both on and off the field.

Steve Hansen’s squad are currently pitched up in the luxurious surroundings of the Lensbury Hotel in Teddington. The four-star establishment has served as their base since they arrived on English shores just under a fortnight ago.

Located on the south bank of the river Thames in south west London, the 171-room complex has served as the perfect retreat for the world’s number one side. The base has also doubled up as a world class training facility with a full-size rugby pitch, surrounded by security fences, just a short stroll away from the hotel.

The sleepy suburb of Teddington is a far cry from the bustling inner city district of High Street Kensington, where the All Blacks usually stay when they play England at Twickenham during the autumn internationals.

Away from their legion of adoring fans, the All Blacks can focus on the job at hand. And there are certainly plenty of All Blacks fans in London. A couple of years in the capital city is a rite of passage for young Kiwis. The towns of Putney, Acton, Clapham and Earls Court are particular go-to spots for New Zealanders looking to settle here.

The Waitangi Day Pub Crawl is the stuff of legend in London with thousands of Kiwis taking in stops at Paddington, Notting Hill and South Kensington on the London Underground’s Circle Line on 6 February every year. The sight of hundreds of Kiwi revellers performing a mass haka in Westminster is something to behold.

Therefore, it makes sense that the All Blacks have sought the tranquility of Teddington. They’ve made a subdued start on the field as well. After an almighty arm wrestle at Wembley, Richie McCaw and Co got the job done against Argentina with a hard-fought 26-16 victory.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool A - New Zealand v Argentina - Wembley Stadium All Blacks: Uncharacteristic errors against Argentina. Source: Mike Egerton

Save for the last 20 minutes, it was a sloppy performance punctuated by uncharacteristic errors from some of their most experienced campaigners. McCaw was sent to the bin, only his third yellow card in 143 Tests, for a blatant trip on Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe which Hansen later called a “dumb mistake” while Kieran Read missed two tackles in the lead up to Guido Petti’s try. Conrad Smith may be a trained lawyer but even he couldn’t argue with his yellow card late in the first half while Ma’a Nonu was hauled off for Sonny Bill Williams five minutes after the break. Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock were both called ashore early in the second half as they struggled to deal with Marcos Ayerza and Nahuel Tetaz Chapparro at scrum time.

But, the All Blacks still got the job done. Sonny Bill provided thrust and dynamism in midfield. Charlie Faumuina and Wyatt Crockett shored up the scrum while Beauden Barrett provided his usual electric impact from the bench.

Job done. Attention has now turned to Namibia tomorrow night. Hansen has made 12 changes to take on a side ranked 19 places below them. Yesterday’s big story was Sam Cane’s appointment as All Blacks captain for the first time.

Since making his debut during Ireland’s three-Test tour of New Zealand in June 2012, Cane has acted as McCaw’s understudy. The Waikato Chiefs flanker has been restricted to 25 appearances (11 starts) since his debut during the last-gasp 22-19 win against Ireland in Christchurch three years ago.

With McCaw set to hang up his boots at the end of the tournament, Cane finally looks ready to step out of the legendary openside’s shadow.

Britain Rugby WCup New Zealand Argentina Bosched! Conrad Smith makes the hit on Marcelon Bosch. Source: Frank Augstein

“It’s a great honour,” said Cane. “To be honest, it took me by surprise a little bit. It’s extremely special to become an All Black for the first time, but to be able to lead your country out is something that stands above that. I’m hugely honoured and very excited about it.

I was just hoping it would be great to get a start and so Steve told me ‘you’ll be starting, but you’ll also be captain’, so it took me back a little bit but it’s a huge honour to be asked to do it. I’ve just got to make sure I do it to the best of my ability.

After a brief cameo in Christchurch, Cane earned his first start in the third and final Test against Ireland in Hamilton the following week. Liam Messam started alongside Cane that day with McCaw shifting to number eight. It was an extra special night for the Chiefs duo as they ran out in front of their home crowd at Waikato Stadium.

It was a dream Test start for Cane. For Ireland, it was a living nightmare. Sonny Bill ran riot and Paddy Wallace wondered why he hadn’t let us phone go to voicemail when he was sitting on a beach in Portugal earlier that week as Ireland shipped 60 points to a chorus of cow bells from the fanatical home fans.

Cane had just turned 20, but the Reporoa-born backrower looked right at home on the international stage. After being named New Zealand’s 67th Test captain yesterday, Messam was not in the least bit surprised about his Chiefs team-mate’s promotion.

“I just remember this 17-year-old kid rocking up to Chiefs training, he looked like he was 30,” said Messam.

“He was a big kid, he was strong in the gym and he was fit. He just got stuck into training; we have pretty physical trainings at the Chiefs and he just stuck in and look where he’s got to now.

He’s been through a lot in career already and he just leads by example by the way he plays. I thought he was outstanding this year not just for the All Blacks but for the Chiefs as well.

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Sam Cane Cane made his first All Blacks start against Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Cane’s appointment as captain is very much looking to the future. Read looks set to take over from McCaw as skipper after the World Cup, but the Crusaders No 8 will need a strong group of lieutenants around him.

Dan Carter, Nonu and Conrad Smith are all departing to France to take up lucrative Top 14 contracts after the World Cup while Keven Mealamu and Woodcock are calling it a day. Messam and Williams will be chasing Olympic glory with the Sevens squad next season. The All Blacks certainly have a rebuilding job on their hands post-World Cup with Cane, who has been part of the squad’s senior leadership group for the past few seasons, a vital part of that regeneration.

“He’s a good leader,” said Hansen. “I don’t think he’s ever played poorly for the All Blacks. He’s got a reasonably tricky job in the team following the skipper. Whenever he gets the opportunity, he plays well, so that’s important. He’s part of the leadership group and he’s got a good rugby brain. He’s happy to voice his opinions and lead by example.”

Cane will be making his first World Cup start and is joined in the starting line-up by fellow tournament debutants Codie Taylor, TJ Perenara and Barrett. The quartet were part of a star-studded New Zealand U20 side that defeated England 33-22 to claim the Junior World Championship in 2011.

It was certainly a team destined for greatness with Munster centre Francis Saili and Highlanders fly half Lima Sopoaga operating in midfield, Ulster-bound winger Charles Piutau was also among the backs while Wales utility back Gareth Anscombe pulled the string at fly half. Barrett was deployed at full back during the tournament. Brodie Retallick packed down in the second row alongside Steven Luatua with Ben Tameifuna anchoring the scrum at tight head. Waiseke Naholo could only make the bench.

George Ford, Owen Farrell, Christian Wade, Marland Yarde, Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury were in the England side that day. Something was definitely in the water that year.

“Sam’s always been a leader,” said Perenara on his former Baby Blacks team-mate. “I always saw the potential in Sam to be an All Black captain. In all the teams that I’ve played with him, he’s always taken a leadership role. The boys respect him.”

“I’m stoked for him,” Barrett added.

“Like TJ said, we’ve played age grade rugby coming through. He’s always been a natural leader. He’s always been a great rugby player through those grades as well.

To see him coming through the grades getting into that leadership group, and now captain, I’m not surprised personally.

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