Steve Hansen challenges English for third test
Take us on at our game if you dare.
In the midst of explaining why he'd resisted the urge to make more than three tweaks to his starting team this week, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen laid down this not-so-subtle challenge to English counterpart Stuart Lancaster and his men yesterday.
Still figuring out their best modus operandi, the tourists attempted to match the All Blacks' relentless up-tempo style in pristine conditions under the roof last week and, despite the misleading one-point scoreline, came off a clear second best.
It would be a major surprise to see them emulate those risky tactics throughout the final examination; expectations are they will instead search for a happy medium but ultimately be more conservative.
Hansen, though, at his savvy agenda-setting best, stressed his preference for England to adopt the same speed and willingness to attack from all over the park.
"They're in a bit of a quandary, really, because they took us on in Dunedin playing a game at real pace and worked out they couldn't," he said, laying a trap of sorts. "What are they going to do now? I've heard Stuart mention they shouldn't play too much rugby down their end. Maybe they're going to kick a bit more."
Ben Smith backed up those assertions, suggesting the back three were anticipating a more traditional England approach.
"We've got to prepare throughout the week for the aerial game they could employ; making sure when they put kicks up we're confident coming through onto the ball," he said.
The All Blacks' focus is on replicating their third quarter, during which we were given a sample-size treat of delectable rugby. Having clicked, even so briefly, for the first time this season, the template has been created.
Realistically, such a period is only possible when the opposition is out on their feet, having been sucked into a similar positive approach. Hence Hansen's probing.
"That 20 minutes after halftime is where we want to get to," halfback Aaron Smith said. "That's the intensity we want to put teams under pressure. That's a tempo our boys were ready for. You understand if you're knackered, they're knackered. It's good to know our boys can go to that level. It gives us that confidence."
Hansen made it clear his side had "four or five" more steps before they reach the heights achieved at Ellis Park last season. Shifting through those gears can only be done tomorrow night by putting a clinical full stop on a clean sweep.
"I'd be great if we can have four of them," Hansen said of the exemplary period when backs and forwards intertwined with such ease. "That'd make life easier. That's been our focus, trying to lift our performance and getting our skill-sets right across the park, and having the energy and intensity to play the game at high speed for 80 minutes."
Central among the priorities will be an improved start.
In their last five tests the All Blacks have only led once at halftime - an indication they are, initially at least, battling to find their rhythm.
Last week ill-discipline forced them to recover from a 10-0 deficit, one which would have been greater had Ben Smith not pulled off his superb cover tackle on Manu Tuilagi. Hansen also won't be happy with a perception his men clocked off at the death and allowed England to strike on fulltime.
"We haven't quite got it right. We're either over or under-aroused. We got away to a terrible start last week," he conceded.
Only one selection caused any genuine debate this week. Conrad Smith's absence scuppered plans to hand Beauden Barrett his first test start at No 10, with Hansen believing minimal changes elsewhere will help rookie centre Malakai Fekitoa make a successful fist of his starting debut outside Ma'a Nonu. Three years on from their last collaboration, the selection of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino as a fearsome loose forward trio was, in the end, a no-brainer.