Don't get too carried away
They finished in style, but the All Blacks' mixed results suggest there is much still to be done.
It would be dangerous to paper over the cracks.
The All Blacks' emphatic finish to their messy Tri-Nations campaign gives some hope for the future, but this has not been a season to celebrate.
Credit where it is due. The All Blacks were brilliant in Saturday's 33-6 thrashing of Australia in Wellington.
This was the mix of hard graft, clinical execution and finishing flair that has long been the staple of New Zealand rugby, but that had been missing all season.
It was also the fillip under-fire coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen needed ahead of the end-of-year tour.
Though the coaches' critics will find it hard to stomach, the trio will guide the All Blacks to the next World Cup, bar a catastrophic run of results.
Saturday night's 27-point margin was the All Blacks' fifth biggest win against Australia and put coach Graham Henry ahead 6-1 over rival Robbie Deans.
A press for changes from the New Zealand Rugby Union's board will not occur in the near future.
But questions do need to be asked before the squad heads off for the end-of-year tour.
It took eight tests for a complete, accurate performance to emerge and it came against an Australian side that had the spine of a jellyfish on the night.
In between times, the All Blacks slumped to some frustrating lows.
They lost four of nine tests along the way, botched their maths to lose the Dave Gallaher Cup to France, then relinquished the Tri-Nations to South Africa for the first time since 2004.
There was a sometimes panicky selection merry-go-round, even considering a spate of injuries, and there are still no credible backups to first-five Dan Carter, or openside flanker Richie McCaw.
On that note, young Manawatu pivot Aaron Cruden cries out to be taken on the end-of-year tour, while one wonders if Stephen Donald should make the trip.
Most concerning though, was that the All Blacks struggled to adapt to the type of strangling, pressure rugby South Africa brought to the table.
It is exactly the brand New Zealand will face at the knockout stage of the 2011 World Cup.
Style must reflect resources and opposition. A more clinical brand of rugby must be developed to negate quality sides such as South Africa.
The All Blacks coaches should not be knocked for consistently looking for an edge, but they appeared to tie themselves in knots this season.
The back play was too complex for the players involved. The lineout was inconsistent, obsessed with throwing to the back, and handling errors were far too frequent.
If they are looking for a template, it came in the simplistic approach to the season finale.
The loose trio of Richie McCaw, Adam Thomson and Kieran Read paved the way, dominating in a way not seen since McCaw, Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo were in their prime.
In the backs, wing Cory Jane was sensational, while Ma'a Nonu and Isaia Toeava gave a glimpse of the midfield penetration that has been missing all season.
How pleasing to see the All Blacks pick and go with such authority around the fringes, old-fashioned muscle sapping the Wallaby defence and opening gaps for the backs.
Carter has returned to his best, clearly refreshed after his injury-hit French sabbatical.
Read has development as a genuine test No8 with ball skills and power.
Toeava's confident finish hinted at the player the coaches have long talked about, but rarely seen.
Young lock Issac Ross and prop Owen Franks have been developed for the future.
Throw in the swag of injured test players, a bolter or two and perhaps even a returning former All Black or two and the future could indeed be as bright as the final match of the Tri-Nations suggests.
CLASS OF 2009
Ratings for the All Blacks over the nine test matches played so far in 2009:
Mils Muliaina (9 tests) 5.5
Never regained the form and confidence of last season and seemed to struggle with the lack of space to counterattack, losing his instinctive running game as he mulled over whether to kick or run.
Cory Jane (6 tests) 7.5
Strangely cast off after the win over Australia in Auckland, but deserves a regular start either on the wing or at fullback. Has all the skills a modern player needs.
Joe Rokocoko (8 tests) 5
His last test was his best, but still short of the pace that has marked his career.
Sitiveni Sivivatu (5 tests) 7
Disrupted by injury, but unrivalled ability to break the line. Scored just one try, but created countless opportunities.
Conrad Smith (5 tests) 6.5
Injury curtailed his progress, but it was business as usual for the solid centre with few mistakes, and one brilliant try against South Africa in Bloemfontein.
Isaia Toeava (5 tests) 6.5
Has he finally matured? Toeava produced a compelling finish to the season off the bench in Hamilton and for 80 minutes in Wellington. Has acceleration that could be devastating at test level and may be worth further consideration at centre.
Ma'a Nonu (9 tests) 7
The All Blacks' leading tryscorer this season with four, Nonu should not be shuffled from second-five again. Devastating ball-carrier and even when marked draws in defenders.
Luke McAlister (6 tests) 5
Broken cheekbone in Sydney summed up a disappointing return from Europe that did not go to plan. Will probably feature in future plans, but needs a big improvement.
Stephen Donald (7 tests) 5
A big heart, but continues to struggle with the pace of test rugby. Kicking game is too erratic the All Blacks need to develop a better backup for Dan Carter.
Dan Carter (3 tests) 7
Came back to kick the matchwinner in Sydney and immediately steadied the ship with his assured tactical kicking, decision-making and goalkicking. Class player.
Jimmy Cowan (7 tests) 6.5
Defensively brilliant and tough as teak, but option-taking, at times, and kicking game both still need to improve.
Kieran Read (9 tests) 7.5
The find of the season. Grew into his task with each test and has a firm hold on the No8 jersey. Exciting prospect.
Richie McCaw (9 tests) 7.5
Inspirational in Wellington and consistent throughout. A questionable call to turn down a penalty kick in Hamilton and needs a backup to ease his load through to the World Cup.
Jerome Kaino (7 tests) 6
Consistent without getting back to his barnstorming best with ball in hand.
Adam Thomson (3 tests) 6.5
Unwisely tried at openside flanker in the first test of the year, but finished with a blinder in Wellington at No6. Sure to get further chances.
Brad Thorn (9 tests) 8
Probably the pick of the All Blacks' pack in terms of consistently turning out quality efforts. Questions over whether he will last to the World Cup, but a key man in the current squad.
Isaac Ross (8 tests) 6.5
Has to shoulder some of the blame for the lineout wobbles as he was calling them, but overall a solid start to his test career. Probably needs to bulk up, but only a matter of time before he establishes himself at this level.
Neemia Tialata (5 tests) 5.5
Responded positively to being dropped lost weight and produced a strong finish in Wellington. Remains the best tighthead, but must not let up on fitness before the end-of-year tour.
Tony Woodcock (9 tests) 7
A vital cog and unchallenged as the incumbent loosehead. Got better as the season progressed after overcoming a lingering ear infection.
Owen Franks (6 tests) 6.5
A big find for the All Blacks and probably surprised with how well he stepped up to test rugby. Will only get better.
Andrew Hore (7 tests) 6.5
Took a while to get back to his best form and was not helped by the lineout malfunctioning at various times.
Keven Mealamu (6 tests) 6.5
Was starting to regain the zest that marked his early career before injury curtailed his season. Will be missed on the end-of-year tour.
Not rated: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Jason Eaton, Rodney So'oialo, Tom Donnelly, Ali Williams, Liam Messam, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, George Whitelock, John Afoa, Wyatt Crockett, Brendon Leonard, Piri Weepu, Hosea Gear, Rudi Wulf, Lelia Masaga, Colin Slade, Tamati Ellison. TOBY ROBSON
The Dominion Post