The All Blacks have shut the book on their stellar performance of 2013 and say their first Test of 2014 against England in Auckland on Saturday launches a new era.
“If we hang on to last year we’ll get thumped,” coach Steve Hansen said when questioned about building on last year’s record-setting run of 14 unbeaten Tests.
“It was a good year, but the reality is we could have been beaten two or three times.”
A year out from defending the World Cup, Hansen said it was crucial to keep his side in top mental and physical condition and he refused to accept that a depleted England will be easily beaten in the All Blacks Eden Park fortress.
“This England side can do some things better than we can, and we need to make sure we improve in those areas so we at least get on similar ground to them,” he said.
The All Blacks are notoriously scratchy in their season opener but captain Richie McCaw ruled out rustiness as an excuse if things go wrong in the first of the three Tests against England.
“The reality is it’s not going to be perfect because you’ve got 15 guys trying to stop you,” he said as the All Blacks wrapped up training on Friday.
“But, accepting mistakes just because you haven’t played together for a while — that’s not the standard you need to be at playing for the All Blacks.”
The All Blacks will be keen to get on top early by charging their heavy ball carriers at raw England inside backs Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond.
Injuries and unavailability have promoted Burns from fourth pick fly-half to the starting line up inside Eastmond, who could not make his Bath side towards the tail of the season. They have just five Tests between them.
The slight Eastmond is listed at 26 kilograms lighter and 11 centimetres shorter than his imposing 88-Test opposite Ma’a Nonu whose key role is to straighten the All Blacks attack and create space for the outside speedsters.
It is an imbalance in size and experience that puts added pressure on the England forwards to limit the All Blacks possession.
However, England have dismissed talk of inexperience hindering the first Test side before the bulk of their senior players become available for the second Test.
Assistant coach Andy Farrell said the key word was “belief” and maintained the team had tonnes of it with nine returning from the 2012 side that won 38-21 at Twickenham — the All Blacks sole defeat in 28 Tests since they won the 2011 World Cup.
The nine include locks Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury who, along with flanker James Haskell, are influential ball winners.
Parling said he relished his key role in providing “some energy to the team, which is important for the backs and forwards. And if I can bring a bit of that as well as the other lads I’m sure we can do alright.”
As intense as the forwards showdown will be, there is also intrigue in the clash of fullbacks Israel Dagg against Six Nations player of the year Mike Brown who will direct the battle for territory with their kicking game.
But even if Brown can guide his forwards into the attacking corners, behind England’s optimism remains the sizeable gap in experience between the two sides.
With the 47-Test scrum-half Danny Care ruled out on the eve of the Test with a shoulder injury and replaced by Ben Youngs, England were reduced to 284 caps in their starting 15 compared to the All Blacks’ 779.