Rugby World Cup: Bye week doesn't mean rest week for All Blacks with eye on must-win against Italy

For many, a bye week feels like an opportunity to relax, put your feet up and smell the roses - but don't dare suggest that to All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan.

While New Zealand have the luxury of no game this week at the Rugby World Cup in France, that doesn't mean players and coaches will be enjoying some downtime in their schedule.  

"That word 'downtime' always worries me," admits Ryan. "There's a difference in your language - if you call it a week off, everyone sits down, but it's a week to freshen up areas of our game that can make the All Blacks better.

Jason Ryan oversees All Blacks warm-up against Namibia.
Jason Ryan oversees All Blacks warm-up against Namibia. Photo credit: Photosport

"It's a chance to get the balance right, definitely, but when we're on the grass, we're going to be working hard." 

Beginning their World Cup campaign with defeat to the host nation - their first-ever in poolplay - puts a degree of unfamiliar pressure on the All Blacks, who now cannot afford another loss at this early stage.

After dispensing Namibia clinically, they have two weeks to prepare for their biggest obstacle to making the quarter-finals - a 12th-ranked Italy side that have never beaten New Zealand before and never progressed to World Cup knockout rounds. 

Over the past four years, these All Blacks have suffered enough 'first-evers' to know nothing can be taken for granted.

"This is a big test match for us, probably one of our biggest in a long time," insisted Ryan, whose attention has been honed on the 'Azzurri', since the fulltime whistle sounded against the African minnows. 

"This week is by no means a week off for us at all. It's a test week off, but we've got some hard trainings ahead of us and we need to really sharpen a couple of areas in our game that will be important for the Italy test match.

"We'll do that with a lot of diligence and a lot of clear plans on what we need to do." 

The All Blacks were always likely to lay a beating on Namibia, but achieved that with some authority, despite fielding a largely second-string line-up. Of the six players that retained their starting spots from the France game, three were already covering for frontline injuries in the opener.

They were far more convincing than France against Uruguay in the other Pool A clash over the weekend and better than four years ago, when they led just 24-9 at halftime.  

While it's hard to put a value on such a lopsided scoreline, Ryan insists his side took some confidence from their performance.

"I think, forwards-wise, they had a real good crack at us, to be fair," he said. "Their attacking maul has been quite strong – they've got a lot of South African guys in there and South Africa coaches. 

"They had a real crack at us, so we can take a bit of confidence from some shifts we made there and also defending with a man down was progress."

Losing prop Ethan de Groot to a red card left them shorthanded for the third consecutive game, with the previous two proving costly. As things stand, Ryan is confident they can put forward a good case against de Groot's high-tackle charge, but realistically may lose him for the rest of the tournament. 

Discipline is still clearly an area of concern.

Ethan de Groot is banished from the field against Namibia.
Ethan de Groot is banished from the field against Namibia. Photo credit: Photosport

"We'll keep building on the progress we made on the set-piece and defence - big areas of our game," said Ryan. "Our carry and clean... we lost a couple of balls in contact - and just around that discipline under pressure. 

"We'll probably train with a few less numbers and doing a few scenario-based things will be quite important for us. That's what we're seeing, isn't it - cards and discipline - we can't move away from that."

The week without a fixture provides an ideal chance for the walking wounded to return to health, with captain Sam Cane (back), prop Tyrel Lomax (knee), flanker Shannon Frizell (hamstring) and midfielder Jordie Barrett (knee) all nearing possible returns against Italy. 

The extra time also allows injury replacement Ethan Blackadder a chance to get up to speed for his possible involvement in the latter stages of the tournament.  

"This week gives us a chance to put a lot of work into ourselves and then the week after, as you build into the test match," said Ryan.

"We've got to concentrate on what's working well for us, what we could do better and areas we've got to tidy up." 

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