All Blacks' coach Steve Hansen won't mourn Sonny Bill Williams' departure for long as the stars continue to align for a post World Cup clean sweep.
With the Bledisloe Cup locked away for another year after Saturday night's 22-0 win in Auckland, Hansen will sleep easy this week in the knowledge centre Conrad Smith and prop Tony Woodcock are rested and ready to return against Argentina in a fortnight.
And it is not hard to imagine the All Blacks coach's smile broadening further as he watched the Pumas take it to South Africa yesterday morning in Mendoza, where the sides played out a brutal 16-16 draw.
Hansen's world champions have a jump on the Rugby Championship pack after back-to-back wins.
Circumstances mean there is no risk of complacency, staleness or even fatigue as they hit a well-timed week off.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans perhaps best summed up the situation as he contemplated his 14th loss to New Zealand from 17 attempts.
"The shackles are off," Deans said matter of factly.
"They are playing like a side that's endorsed before the first whistle and from a purely rugby perspective it's a blueprint in terms of their mental and physical capabilities.
"Their ability to cope when they haven't got the ball, their ability to adapt and read what's happening. Clearly they're No 1 and for good reason they've been No 1 for some time."
Deans then predicted the All Blacks would win the Rugby Championship and would probably not lose a match.
No wonder then that it was a relaxed Hansen who mulled his next move.
Although there is some doubt over lock Luke Romano, who has aggravated a troublesome shoulder and will be monitored this week, Woodcock's rib injury has healed.
A host of All Blacks will play for their provinces, but Hansen's key men will get a rest before facing the Pumas.
Hansen has the luxury of replacing Williams with Smith, who has all but recovered from the detached retina that has kept him out of the two Bledisloe Cup tests.
That will presumably see Smith resume his well established midfield partnership with Ma'a Nonu, a man champing at the bit to reclaim his favoured No 12 jersey.
Smith will not take part in Wellington's provincial match against Hawke's Bay tomorrow, but Hansen said he had no qualms about starting him against Argentina.
"The timetable is such that his first game available will be for us. We're confident in his fitness. He's proven before he can come straight back in and do the job, so that's what we'll be doing."
Evidence supports that thinking, with Smith previously superb for the Hurricanes after a lengthy holiday, and he has been training hard for several weeks despite being unable to take contact.
Williams' influence will be missed, with the All Blacks falling into a similar pattern as the Chiefs in handing him the ball at every opportunity in recent tests.
But Nonu is hardly a step down.
Argentina provide the perfect tonic for an All Blacks side whose cup is threatening to runneth over.
Not only are the competition newcomers a fresh challenge, they are now a legitimate one after pushing the Springboks to the brink.
And so the focus shifts from the Bledisloe and Williams' semi-emotional All Blacks farewell, one presumably not overdone because his team-mates and his coach believe his absence will be temporary.
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- © Fairfax NZ News
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