OPINION: Building depth can be a double-edged sword.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen can be pleased with a series win that's seen him blood five new caps and discover plenty about a host of men on the fringe.
But the pitfalls of such rapid progress were on display in New Plymouth last night, where a lack of continuity and combination provided a well-timed reminder ahead of the Rugby Championship.
With five changes to the starting XV, including a rusty halves pairing of Piri Weepu and Dan Carter, the All Blacks struggled to get their game going, before emerging with a 24-9 win.
The plan was clearly to keep the ball in hand and stretch France wide, but the clarity of a week ago simply wasn't there.
Weepu lacked the snap of Aaron Smith from the base as he searched for credible or convincing ball carrying options, but was mostly forced to fire the ball back to Carter behind the advantage line.
The All Blacks were not direct enough and it emboldened the French, leading to a scrappy battle for supremacy.
Judgment should not be too harsh. Comparisons need to be tempered.
The side that played so well in Christchurch had a dress rehearsal at Eden Park and it showed a week later. The side in Taranaki started over and it showed.
Which was bad luck for blindside flanker Victor Vito in particular. The Wellington man did all he could on a difficult night without really stamping a mark.
He fumbled one pass, but was generally sound. He carried strongly in contact, caught kickoffs and won back an All Blacks restart with an athletic leap, before being subbed for Steven Luatua with 10 minutes to play.
Rene Ranger was the other man looking to make a statement during a tricky third test.
He can be pleased with his efforts on a night where the ball didn't really come his way.
He ran with intent, broke tackles and produced one trademark offload to wing Ben Smith, who must be close to the man-of-the series after another assured display.
Ranger looked confident, despite losing one wipers kick in the night sky. He skilfully kept the ball in play, got involved early from the blindside from a scrum, and made two half-breaks on the counter-attack.
Hansen would have been pleased, without being thrilled. The positives over three tests have outweighed the negative. None have been better than Ben Smith, who cemented his place as an incumbent test wing with another classy and assured display.
Hansen has made progress in every area, bar the midfield, where Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith remain the only proven test combination.
The series was an irritating break to the Super Rugby season, but it delivered on many levels for the All Blacks and their fans.
France competed admirably for a team of players at the end of a long European grind. Just as the All Blacks ran out of puff at Twickenham last year, France's older players must have been feeling the pinch.
After building some depth, Hansen will now settle on his top side and largely stick with it.
- Sunday Star Times
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