All Blacks set to play European powers in tour like no other

It’s an endurance battle that might prove tougher than what the All Blacks encounter on the field during their end-of-year rugby tour.

Players from the world’s most famous rugby team are into their 11th straight week away from New Zealand, and the challenges keep coming on a tour like no other.

From playing Rugby Championship matches in Australia in September and early October to a one-off match in the United States last week, the All Blacks are now in Europe ahead of four tests against some of the top teams in the northern hemisphere over the next month.

First up is a match on Saturday against Wales, which currently has the highest COVID-19 case rate of all the nations in Britain. Indeed, a player in Wales’ squad — New Zealand-born center Willis Halaholo — has been forced out of the match after testing positive for the virus on Tuesday.

The All Blacks didn’t need that withdrawal to ram home the stark realities of touring during a pandemic.

Players and management wear face masks everywhere and have their own elevator and back entrance at the team hotel outside Cardiff. Hotel staff aren’t allowed into their rooms or even in the dining hall after dishing up the food at lunch and dinner. The arrival of a coffee van in front of the hotel at 7 a.m. is one of the “simple pleasures that keep us going,” New Zealand assistant coach John Plumtree said Wednesday of the bubble in which the touring party is operating.

“If you came into our environment and you saw how the players were coping, you’d admire them, because it’s not easy,” Plumtree said. “They’re all sticking really tight and they all understand the importance of being grateful that we can play on a world stage right now in these types of conditions.”

Playing in front of more than 70,000 spectators at the Principality Stadium on Saturday will seem like a world away from what is going on back in New Zealand, which has pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing since early in the pandemic. Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, has been in lockdown for more than two months after an outbreak of the delta variant.

There have been 28 recorded deaths related to the coronavirus in New Zealand since the outbreak early in 2020. In the latest figures from Public Health Wales, released Tuesday, there were 31 deaths related to COVID-19 reported in the most recent 72-hour period of registered cases. The number of coronavirus-related deaths registered in England and Wales is back on the rise.

New Zealand’s players all have to test negative before being allowed to play.

“We understand the risk,” Plumtree said. “We have come from Washington where the risk was probably a bit lower but we were still in the same bubble. But here with the amount of cases per day, the players understand the risk that is involved and they are heightened to it.”

Plumtree added: “It’s way out of what we are used to doing when on tour, certainly in any rugby environment that I’ve been in.”

New Zealand has games to come in Italy, Ireland and France, but first Wales has to be dispatched and that isn’t usually a problem. The Welsh haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953 — a run of 31 successive defeats, including 16 at home.

Wales’ task has been made even tougher this week because the game falls outside World Rugby’s autumn international window, meaning coach Wayne Pivac will be without England-based players like Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit because they have not been released by their clubs.

Key players like George North, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric are injured, and Halaholo — who qualifies for Wales on residency grounds — has COVID-19.

New Zealand also comes into the game on the back of a 104-14 victory over the United States in Washington on Saturday and having won the Rugby Championship with five wins from six.


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