OPINION: The All Blacks will always have their critics when they fail to put together "complete" performances, but I think the opening fortnight of their northern tour has ticked all the right boxes.
They've won both tests comfortably with two completely different teams - could anyone else in world rugby do that? - and they've achieved development. They've introduced new All Blacks, and given game-time to players who haven't had a lot of recent rugby.
Now they'll put that full-strength team back together and work on the game plan they're trying to create to play the two toughest tests of the tour. It's going to be a good way to finish the year.
I think they've done a very intelligent thing the past two weeks - making a significant step in the right direction in terms of development and also revitalising players who have featured in the majority of tests. Those players will feel the competition that's now in this squad, and I like the way they're thinking and progressing. It's becoming increasingly evident Steve Hansen has done an incredible coaching job this year.
I know some people were a bit unhappy with the slow start yesterday here in Rome and the fact Italy were in the game for so long but it was a good test match. Italy competed by playing positively and didn't enter into the game set piece orientated. The All Blacks were made to work hard for the win.
Sure, the scoreline flattered the All Blacks, and this was no standard breezy win. A lot of credit for that goes to the way Italy approached it. They fell away in the last 20, but that was due to the lineup changes and one or two other things.
The All Blacks were put under genuine pressure and coped really well. They didn't have the dominance or possession many thought they would but their defence again stood them in good stead. Once more the game plan showed a semblance of potency but didn't function right through the game. But when they needed to go up a gear they did.
What they need to be mindful about is people are starting to figure out what they are trying to do. Italy's rush defence shut down their phase play a bit and disrupted them at breakdowns. That's something to think about.
But the hardest thing to do in the modern game is score from set piece. You've got to be clever to win clean lineout ball and very good to win scrum ball that's not manipulated. Then you've got defensive systems honed by video analysis, with a fair idea where you're going.
The All Blacks looked at how Italy defended and they set out with a new formation in the backline. They didn't go to runners way out behind the advantage line and they scored set-piece tries.
You're at your best defensively when you go from set piece because that's how you train. For the All Blacks to continually score tries off set piece is a credit to the coaching, the senior players and their methods. You simply don't see any other team in the modern game doing that.
In terms of the individuals, Julian Savea had a very good game, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu both played well, and Cruden had some great moments and touches.
I also thought Ali Williams had a good game, Tony Woodcock too in his own right but in general they worked well together as a unit which was a positive.
The next fortnight now gets interesting. The two teams that were going to be their biggest threats are both faltering and this is going to challenge the All Blacks' motivation. They have to make sure they don't get complacent because they are going to be heavy favourites.
After chopping and changing for the first two weeks, now they're going to put together a combination of those lineups. Dan Carter and Richie McCaw will be back, while the combination of Nonu and Smith will stay intact.
They will go back to the team that did so well in the Rugby Championship and the challenge is to get it right, and quickly.
I'm sure we won't have a problem putting a performance against Wales on the board, then we go to Twickenham where New Zealanders love to win. And, who knows, maybe that "complete" performance will come.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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