All Blacks coach Steve Hansen never gets too carried away at the best of times, but he's guardedly optimistic after a third-quarter blitz at Forsyth Barr Stadium netted a series-clinching victory over England last night.
There wasn't a lot in it - again - as two late tries rather flattered the tourists in a 28-27 victory for the All Blacks to go two up in the series, with just the Hamilton finale to come next Saturday.
That's 16 wins on the trot now for Hansen's men, and a record 32 on the bounce at home. The Hillary Shield is also tucked safely away after two highly competitive tests that said as much about Stuart Lancaster's improving English outfit as they did Hansen's slightly scratchy All Blacks.
That was a theme picked up by the All Blacks coach afterwards. He recognised that his team was still building cohesion and confidence, but also that they would be benefiting hugely by being tested to the limit by a combative and industrious England side.
"We certainly played a lot better than last week and we needed to because so did the opposition," Hansen said. "It was a great test match. Sometimes games like these are built up and don't quite meet the expectations but I think this did.
"Any series win is important for us. We've still got another game to go yet and there's been nothing in it through the first two. We've introduced a couple of new players, playing against one of the best sides in the world and managing to come out on the right side.
"It's a positive. The biggest thing about this series is we're learning a lot about ourselves, and along with that we're learning a bit about England. That information will be good going forward."
Hansen was asked where England now ranked among their rivals in the game, and his response was telling.
"Traditionally South Africa have been the great rival for New Zealand rugby and still are, and Australia are our supposedly big brother and you always like to beat the big brother. But England's always been somebody we've enjoyed playing, particularly of late because they've been real contests.
"They're right up there. When you have a true contest between anybody it's enjoyable because that's what these guys want. They want to play in the big stadiums in front of a lot of people against the best you can. It's an opportunity to test yourself. We've got a lot of respect for them and enjoy playing them because of that."
Hansen lauded the effort of his fullback Ben Smith, who was the star of the night for the All Blacks with a consummate display in his first start at fullback. It was notable to hear the coach saying his new No 15 had "seized" his opportunity.
But he also had some high praise for his forwards who laid the platform for the three-try third-quarter blitz that sealed the deal for the home side.
"The forwards stepped up to the mark, particularly the tight five. We scrummed well, our lineout was good, and apart from England's first two drives, we managed to contain them, and drove well ourselves.
"Brodie Retallick around the track emptied the tank as he always does and Sam [Whitelock] was brilliant at the restarts, and dominated the air there.
"That allowed our loose forwards to get into the game and Jerome [Kaino] in his 50th test was very strong. He's always been a physical beast, very good on the tackle and a strong ball-carrier. He's a world-class player and has just come straight back and fitted in like he was never gone."
Skipper Richie McCaw felt his team was able to switch up a gear in the third quarter when England started to get fatigued by their growing tackle count. But he said the tourists had really tested their mettle.
"We've known for a long time that this was going to be a big series ... playing a team three times you work each other out pretty well by the end. Till this point we've met that challenge," McCaw said.
"You've got to keep believing in what you're doing. We've got one to go and it will be a good challenge for us to get over this. We'll see how good we are backing it up next week. It's what test rugby should be, playing one of the top teams in the world and you've got to be right on your game to win."
England coach Lancaster credited the All Blacks with a fabulous third quarter that swung the match away from his side but felt there had been plenty of positives in defeat.
"We've got high quality opposition there and, that week's preparatio,n you could see the improvement in their performance. The changes we've made and one or two errors in our game presented them opportunities but overall the positives far outweighed the negatives.
"When we look back at the game it's decision-making at the highest level that we need to look at. That's probably the next step we need to take -- that and a little bit of game managing between our 22 and halfway. Sometimes it doesn't pay to have a play against the All Blacks in that area."
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