No letup for All Blacks in third French match
With the marker laid down, the All Blacks are demanding their exponential curve continues in New Plymouth this week.
You might suspect with the series wrapped up the pressure valve would be released somewhat.
Not so. This is the last chance to implement crucial advancements to the All Blacks' evolving game-plan before the Rugby Championship.
Only, with imminent changes, it will be interesting to observe whether fresh and returning personnel compromise or enhance progress.
"We know we need to expect the exact same percentage improvement this week," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said. "It's our last opportunity before we have a bit of a break and we need to cement that."
Everyone could see the dramatic improvements made in just one week from Eden Park to AMI Stadium. But after picking over the footage of what, on first glance, seemed a clinical victory over the French on Saturday last, areas of weakness were apparent.
While the All Blacks caused the French problems, their lineout delivery wasn't flash; the breakdowns remain an issue and the backs intend to be more productive when presented with attacking set-piece chances.
"I'd say we're a [fair] way off after the review," Foster said.
The question now is how will the likes of first five-eighth Dan Carter, Ben Smith and wing Rene Ranger, who all seem odds-on to be promoted to the starting team or in Smith's case shifted to centre, affect tactics. There is also the prospect of changes at blindside flanker and front-row.
In Auckland the All Blacks' run-at-all costs policy had its moments - namely Smith's scintillating break - but proved largely unsuccessful. The opening test, however, comes with the caveat of rust. Then, in Christchurch, precision execution of an old-school kick-for-position approach caught the tourist's back-three napping and defensive defiance allowed two classy counter attacking tries.
This brings us to New Plymouth and what to expect as the All Blacks make their welcome return for the first time in three years.
Conditions will play a part but Foster wants to see a balanced blend of what was witnessed in the first two tests. The former first-five emphasised the need for the All Blacks to be fluid, not regimented.
"After the first test even though there were lots of errors we could see we were evolving. We weren't very good at making decisions. That's pretty natural when you're starting some new things," he said.
"What we are trying to do is integrate both [attack and kicking]. It's not our goal just do to one or the other. I was really impressed with the decision-making of our nine, 10 and 15 last week in terms of when to kick.
"The key for us now is learning how to integrate both styles. We adjusted well in the last 20 minutes of that game [in Christchurch]. There were a couple of times they [France] started to drop back and we managed to see that. We've got to get better at using our structure to make good decisions and react to what they do.
"It was exciting to where we got to in Christchurch but we are fully aware there is plenty of potential to get smarter and more aware of where we see that space."
Though keen to play in his home town, Conrad Smith endorsed Ben Smith's pending move to centre yesterday but was also quick to point out the All Blacks' historical flaw. Rarely does this team produce two poor performances - rarely do they back up convincing ones either.
"You only have to look back to last year's first test against the Irish," the Hurricanes captain said. "We probably should have lost that second test. We didn't back up well. Great sides can back up good performances and repeat good outings. That's a challenge for us. We're proud of what we did last week. That's over now."