The All Blacks have become that friend who always arrives fashionably late.
In two matches on their European tour, Steve Hansen's men have been forced to transform from a galloping racehorse to what many will initially label an underwhelming stayer.
Don't expect the All Blacks to bolt ahead of their two final northern rivals, Wales and England. As Italy showed yesterday in Rome and Scotland plainly portrayed in Edinburgh last week, passion is a powerful motivator. No nation takes greater pride than attempting to conquer the Everest of world rugby.
The last three All Blacks performances have been average, at best. Sure, there have been fleeting moments of brilliance. But against the Wallabies, Scots and the Azzurri, their quest for perfection was well astray.
Missed tackles, wayward passing, breakdown inaccuracies and a failure to protect halfback Aaron Smith were cause for concern in the 42-10 win over the Italians.
Smith felt like a musician whose tunes fell on deaf ears.
"I was playing the same drums," he said of commanding his forward pack in the sloppy first half which ended with the All Blacks just six points in front.
"I was saying, ‘Come on, boys, help me out, give me a bit of protection'. The message was sent out at halftime and it got better.
"It did flow on a bit. When we didn't get the ball right we were pretty average, to be honest. It's a work in progress. In the end the score says enough. We're pretty happy."
The scenery may have differed but wearing down opponents has become a familiar, somewhat problematic, theme which Hansen will ponder this week.
Dress it up any way you like, other than the final 10 minutes at Stadio Olimpico, the All Blacks struggled to gain dominance over one of the weaker Six Nations sides.
Much of that can be attributed to rotation. Making 14 starting changes, and leaving out Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, during a six-day turnaround was always a risky move.
The benefits of giving the full 32-man squad valuable game-time can be seen in the bench. Hansen places great importance on the impact of his substitutions and they are clearly having the desired impact. The All Blacks have fended off the gallant Scots and surprisingly enterprising Italians in the closing stages.
"We know our fitness is superior to a lot of teams so the bench comes on and it looks pretty easy for them," Smith said.
Rotation has enabled Hansen to build depth and form an extended core he can call on but it could leave his first-choice combinations rusty for what should be the true tests in Cardiff and London.
To be fair, for all their frustrating faults against Italy, the All Blacks' composure shone through when it mattered most.
"We were able to get a few tries at the end," said veteran hooker Keven Mealamu. "That's what it's going to take when you play these teams in their home towns. It's going to be tough. It's going to take a little bit longer.
"If you look back to the Scotland game it was the same thing as well. We were able to get some dominance, and it's coming late in the second half."
On the back of five straight losses, the latest a shock defeat to Samoa, Wales will be hurting. Without Warren Gatland, the wheels appear to have fallen off under interim coach Rob Howley. But the Red Dragons would love nothing more than to exploit the All Blacks' patchy form and continued late arrivals.
"We're still trying to drive perfection when we have the ball," Smith said. "The pressure is on us to keep raising the standards."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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