Hansen's masterplan coming along nicely
You might have missed the signs if you weren't looking hard enough, but Steve Hansen has advanced his All Blacks' master plan significantly after a satisfying June hitout.
The French have been and gone, the broom's been tucked away after a series sweep, and, believe it or not, Hansen's All Blacks have taken some major strides along their development, into what the coach hopes will be a 2015 powerhouse.
Make no mistake, the next couple of years are all about building and assessing, with a first World Cup crown on foreign soil as the clear goal. Granted, it's important to live up to the legacy along the way, but the guv'nor understands too well that there is only one true ring to acquire on this odyssey.
Hansen didn't give much away during the French series. That's not his style. He likes to cultivate the grumpy face and the discontent persona, but he achieved some notable things during three somewhat flawed performances.
The first test was rusty and the third decidedly scratchy. Thank goodness then for a pretty complete outing in Christchurch, where the All Blacks produced the clinical football we expect every time they run out. Overall, it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't too bad either.
In terms of his planning, Hansen would have been pleased with what he found out about hooker Dane Coles and backline utility Ben Smith. Both confirmed their readiness to play prominent roles in this new era.
Aaron Smith also underlined his status as the best of a solid bunch of halfbacks on hand, Izzy Dagg played his way into some form, and previous backups such as Wyatt Crockett, Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden did well enough to suggest the step up is not beyond them. Beauden Barrett's tantalising two tries in a collective 13 minutes indicated he's got the temperament, and gas, to do big things at the top level.
The performance of the three leading locks would also have given Hansen immense satisfaction, while midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, No 8 Kieran Read and, to a lesser extent, prop Owen Franks, reaffirmed their class.
Chief concerns? The No 6 puzzle is nowhere closer to being solved, midfield depth remains a major concern, and clearly Hansen has reservations about the readiness of some of his newcomers, including the Blues trio of Luatua, Piutau and Saili.
Sunday Star Times