Dan Carter likely to return for third test
Having watched his men stuff France 30-0 on Saturday night, Steve Hansen can contemplate letting his hair down around the selection table.
With the series won 2-0, and the Dave Gallaher Cup retained, the All Blacks coach yesterday hinted there will be changes for the final test in New Plymouth. The expectation, now, is that Dan Carter will be back at first five-eighth.
Although there will be no spin-the-bottle approach by Hansen and his fellow selectors, a desire to blood new combinations is likely.
And given that the cracked bone in Carter's right hand has mended it seems inevitable Hansen will thrust the Cantabrian back into the No 10 jersey.
He may have 94 test caps but Carter, who last played when he kicked the winning penalty when the Crusaders beat the Waratahs 23-22 on May 31, will be hankering to be reunited with his All Blacks' No 10 jersey.
"Think that's enough of being allblacks waterboy, time to get back out on the field," Carter tweeted at the weekend.
French coach Philippe Saint-Andre can only fantasise about the playmaker options available to Hansen.
While Aaron Cruden produced a vastly-improved performance at AMI Stadium, especially with his ability to kick into areas behind the French backs, his opposite Frederic Michalak botched two drop-goal attempts and struggled with his match-rhythm before suffering the shoulder injury that ended his tour.
The major issue for Carter has been his ability to grip the ball and no chances were taken with aggravating the hand bone.
"He's just trained but was not allowed to have any contact," Hansen confirmed.
Trying to get Hansen to lift the curtain on what other changes, if any, will be made for New Plymouth was futile.
But there may be potential for re-shuffles at hooker, blindside flanker and the midfield.
No 8 Kieran Read, who suffered a painful back injury before halftime but defied initial fears he would need to be replaced by Victor Vito, should be available and Sam Whitelock (who copped a blow to the elbow) will not prevent him being considered.
"It's all about risk and reward at the moment," Hansen declared. "The risk is not so high, we have won the series and the rewards of getting the guys up the track and seeing how they go will be good.
"But . . . you can't just make wholesale changes just because we won the series. They will be subtle, if there are any at all."
The victory at AMI Stadium was not only significant because it was the first time the All Blacks kept the French scoreless in 53 tests.
The tries to right wing Ben Smith and replacement back Beauden Barrett ensured the memory of the drab first-test win was forgotten.
A remarkable defensive effort, in which the All Blacks guarded their line for 26 phases before Sam Cane charged-down Michalak's drop-goal attempt, resulted in the searing counter-attack that led to Smith's five-pointer.
Barrett's try near fulltime shaded that effort.
Rene Ranger embarked on a bold charge into space, Conrad Smith kicked off his "wrong" foot and Cruden's second involvement resulted in him slipping a magical transfer to put Barrett in the clear.
"It was pretty special wasn't it?" Hansen stated. "It had a whole array of skill-sets in it."