All Blacks set to pour on pace against Pumas
The All Blacks will ask Argentina a searching question at Westpac Stadium tonight - can they keep up?
Five tests into Steve Hansen's coaching tenure a pattern has emerged, an urgent intent to play the game at a pace international rugby has not seen before.
First Ireland, thrashed 60-0 in Hamilton, then Australia, blanked 22-0 in Auckland, were reduced to chasing shadows, but Hansen is only just getting started.
Graham Henry will provide insights for the opposition camp, but in the nine months since the World Cup the All Blacks have moved on.
Under the new regime training sessions have been changed and fitness programmes tweaked. To play at this pace aerobic and anaerobic capacity has become a focal point. Hansen made his first big move in picking halfback Aaron Smith and the team's "one-second rule" has turned rucks into fleeting events.
Muscular midfielder Ma'a Nonu admits he's had a wake-up call since returning from Japan for Bledisloe Cup tests in Sydney and Auckland.
"It's fast, man. The game's changing rapidly," he said this week. "If you can't keep up you will be left behind. You have to adapt, you have to change."
First five-eighth Dan Carter confessed this week he was so tired toward the end of the second test against the Wallabies he "headed to the wing for a breather".
And anyone at Thursday's session would have been breathless just watching a team run in perpetual motion.
Hansen's vision remains a work in progress. Burning lungs mean muddled minds and with less time to make decisions, handling errors were frequent in Sydney and Auckland.
But Conrad Smith says there will be no letup against the Rugby Championships newcomers.
"I think that's the one thing Steve really wants to push," he said. "He feels that's our point of difference, that the All Blacks can play at pace. We've always felt that, but I think he's taken it upon himself to really emphasise that point.
"Even trainings, he's been really hard on the tempo we train at. Not to walk . . . He genuinely feels that if we do that it will carry through to games."
The aim is to make split-second decision-making a "habit" and though Smith expects to be gasping for air after missing the two Bledisloe Cup tests with an eye injury, he is not overly concerned.
"If I feel that, then I figure there are guys around me who must be feeling worse and generally, especially in the All Blacks, that's when we are playing well."
And so the task will be to keep things moving against an Argentine side that is deserving of the utmost respect after its 16-16 draw with South Africa.
Wet weather could narrow the home side's ambitions, but with Aaron Cruden at first five-eighth the All Blacks will come to play.
The key could be how they field the many kicks Pumas halves Juan Martin Hernandez and Nicolas Vergallo will likely rain down upon the outside backs. If Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, and Cory Jane can secure possession and create momentum on the counter-attack, it will be game-on for Hansen's ruck and run.
The All Blacks will need to be more patient than they were against Australia. Hansen described Argentina's defence as one of the best in world rugby and he was not wrong.
There is no shortage of courage in the Pumas' squad and classy captain and No 8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe plays off a quality pack, most notably loosehead Rodrigo Roncero and lock Patricio Albacete.
They will match the All Blacks for passion, aggression and set-piece prowess, but they are unlikely to match them for pace.
The Dominion Post