OPINION: Awkward at times, ugly at others, and even on the back foot for long periods, the All Blacks' ability to problem-solve has given their coaches the most satisfaction.
There has been much debate over just how well the touring side has played against Scotland and Italy. Odd, considering the 93-32 scoreline over the two tests, but justified by patches of mediocrity.
That has been particularly true from phase play where the quality of ruck ball presented to halfbacks Piri Weepu and Aaron Smith has been largely below All Black standard.
It has resulted in some misfires in attack and blunted attempts to create the high tempo continuity every team covets and created a number of handling errors.
Criticism has been justified and it's a fairly safe bet senior players and coaches have been equally as, if not more, harsh on themselves.
But they have also been afforded a pat on the back, and for good reason.
A few years back the great failing of All Blacks sides was their inability to go to plan B when the tried and true did not work, as was the case in the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal.
It is not a problem coach Steve Hansen wants to resurface and the signs over the past fortnight suggest he is on the right track.
Assistant coach Ian Foster made some revealing comments yesterday when asked what were the biggest gains and work-ons of the tour ahead of the Wales test.
"We've done some good things. I think we've responded to things that have been chucked at us that maybe we didn't expect," he said.
"We've shown we've learned as we've gone through a game, which is going to be important this week . . . quite frankly that's been the biggest lesson for us, how to learn through a game."
Against Scotland the All Blacks adjusted to a rushing outside defence and a man in the sin bin.
A week later it was an Italian side that sent its second arriving defenders tearing into the breakdown, a change from the southern hemisphere trend of forming a picket fence.
The tour was labelled by one Kiwi columnist this week as a waste of time. But the reality is valuable lessons are being banked. Aaron Cruden could have been yanked at Stadio Olimpico after several basic errors, but was left on for the full 80 minutes.
He was challenged to work things out and get the ball rolling again, which he did as the All Blacks piled on three late tries. He will be a better player for it.
We forget that lock Luke Romano is 26 and second-row partner Brodie Rettallick is just 21. Both are in their first-test seasons; Dane Coles, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Charlie Faumuina are all on their first northern tour.
Kieran Read had never captained the All Blacks before and was a bundle of nerves before kickoff. He got the chance to make decisions under pressure in front of 80,000 hostiles.
By the next World Cup such men will have a library of experience and knowledge from which to draw upon. It will not be restricted to the same-same of the Rugby Championship or Super Rugby.
And by then the All Blacks may have adjusted to their own new-look attack, one that's asking a lot of their forwards in particular.
They have excelled at set piece so far, but are still adjusting to their roles as ball handlers and creators, a curve ball to their psyches from phase play.
"It's one of the growth points we are trying to get to in terms of how we play the game, the tempo we want to play at," Foster said. "Sometimes it means we end up with people in positions they're not accustomed to and it's how they respond to that.
"That's a long-term project we are chasing because clearly it's a work on. Last week we got pressured in some phase situations where we didn't seem to know how to deal with it, but the pleasing thing was we did seem to work it out."
And so to Wales and another puzzle, albeit one that, on face value looks fairly simple.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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