Steve Hansen - Performance on us, not the ref
It was no consolation at all to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen that a post-game meeting with last week's referee Jaco Peyper yielded a frank "mea culpa" from the South African whistle-blower.
Hansen factored a poor refereeing performance into the contributing reasons for a sub-par All Black performance in last week's 12-12 draw with the Wallabies in Sydney to open the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series.
But it was by no means the only factor, or even the main one, Hansen admitted on Thursday after naming a starting XV for Saturday night's return clash at Eden Park featuring three changes. It's notable, though, that nobody has been dropped on the basis of that poor performance at the Olympic stadium, with Liam Messam and Ryan Crotty coming in for the injured Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu respectively, and Conrad Smith returning after his dash to Wellington for the birth of his baby boy.
Hansen today challenged his All Blacks to be better - in fact, to be much better - than they'd been last Saturday night when their 17-test win streak came to a disappointing end in a pretty uninspiring test match all-round.
And the most successful coach in world rugby did not hold back on the shortcomings of his side in Sydney, nor his expectation that they will be addressed in the Bledisloe return.
By picking pretty much them all again, he's put the ball firmly back in their court.
"I know why we didn't perform at the weekend," Hansen said. "There were certain areas of our game we were very poor at, and there was another reason which we won't go into here, but that's been dealt with as well.
"We've spoken to the referee about the scrummaging. He put his hand up, said he got the free-kicks wrong. But we can't control [the referee], we've had the discussion we needed to have and moved on. It's about us playing our game and playing it better than we played it last week."
After declaring he wouldn't get into the refereeing issues, Hansen was asked what Peyper had conceded he got wrong.
"Where do you want me to start?" he barked. "The free-kick he felt was wrong and he was not sure why he called pre-engage. The first yellow card was wrong - the ball was out.
"It was a good conversation, I respect the man for his honesty ... he's no different than players -- some days you have a bad day. He had a bad day at the office and put his hand up.
"But I've got to emphasise, it wasn't just his problem. We had a hell of a bad day ourselves so we'll forget about him and concentrate on what we can do."
The theory doing the rounds is that the All Blacks have got a higher level to go to, but for the Wallabies it's going to be tough to do much better than the 65 percent possession they enjoyed on a rare day of dominance over the world champs up front.
"I know we can, but I don't know how much they've got left to lift," Hansen said. "We've just got to concentrate on us, get us right, then we take the other factors out. If we play well enough we get to control the game, and if we control the game we give ourselves a chance of winning it.
"I'm never surprised when Australia stands up in a contest. They would come out fighting in a game of marbles. That's the way they are and the way we are. In saying that, I understand why the game played out the way it did, because 1) we played poorly and made mistakes, and you can't build momentum when you're making mistakes; and 2) it wasn't a great performance from the ref and you can't build momentum if he's taking it away from you."
On the whistle this week's is Frenchman Romain Poite, who's taken a hard line on the Wallaby scrum in the past. Hansen had no expectation of a repeat.
"The expectation you have with your referee is that on any day they don't come in with pre-conceived ideas. I'm assuming he's not coming in with pre-conceived ideas. He should come, in look at the pictures and take them for what they are. If he does that it will be great."
Again, Hansen made it more than clear that his chief gripes were around his own team's shortcomings. Asked what bugged him about Sydney, he replied: "Just about everything. Our skills and our game structures were basically non-existent to where we would expect them to be. They're two key areas."
The decision to go with Crotty, for his first test start, ahead of rookie Malakai Fekitoa at No 12 had been, in the end, a pretty straightforward call.
"He's played there a lot more than Mala, he's comfortable there, and Mala is still learning to play there. To put him in that situation as a young footballer is probably not fair. And Ryan has played well whenever he's played for us, so we've got confidence in him to do that job."