Steve Hansen pleads for patience and 'promises' All Blacks will find comfort zone
Steve Hansen accepts his All Blacks of 2017 are still a work in progress as they master the art of "feeling comfortable being uncomfortable".
But in a long and impassioned plea at his latest team naming press conference, the All Blacks coach has explained why this year's group appear to have taken a step backwards and vowed he and his fellow coaches will get them to the level they need to by the 2019 World Cup.
Right now the group has its challenges covering for long-term injuries to starting props Owen Franks and Joe Moody, young backline find Jordie Barrett and possibly fullback Israel Dagg, as well as the absence on sabbatical of experienced fullback Ben Smith.
And on the back of a tough, and drawn, series against the British and Irish Lions, Hansen's men have not quite been able to put the total performances together en route to a 3-0 start to the Rugby Championship.
Saturday night's test against the resurgent Springboks at Albany's QBE Stadium looks set to further challenge the New Zealanders who have a raw prop combination of Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala (just eight tests between them) and a young back three of Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder (a combined 20 tests).
Hansen said he could understand some public, and media, angst around the performances of the All Blacks this year, but felt context was needed.
"In 2016 we had a group of men who had been primed to hit the road running. They really jumped at the opportunity," he said.
"In 2017 the game has changed subtly, so we're learning to deal with that. You're always going to have a tough time as a squad at some period of your life. It would appear this is a year we're having to find out about ourselves, how are we preparing, are we doing it bone-deep, or are we just scratching the surface?
"We faced an opponent at the beginning of the season who were defensively probably the best side we've played, and it's four countries versus one. They had all the tools to come at us, and we didn't get a lot of luck in the middle of the park either.
"If we'd won that series, people wouldn't be so down in the mouth. But what we got in that series was a whole lot of different things this young group has to learn. We've got a young skipper who's played 100 test matches, but this is great for him. He's got challenges, the leadership group has got challenges, and throw on top of that all the injuries we've had and has been what I'd call an awkward season."
Hansen is adamant through the difficulties of the Lions series, and the odd tight spot against the Wallabies and Argentina, that some positives are emerging.
"We've played some good rugby ... in the third test against the Lions we played great rugby, we just didn't score any tries and didn't get the opportunity to kick a goal at the end.
"Last week we scored six tries. There only one other team that's done that against them in recent times, and that's us... That's still a pretty good achievement because Argentina are a difficult side to play against, particularly when it's wet and they only want to kick the ball at you.
"All those things are feeding into the big experience pot that we're drinking from and learning from. It's not all bad."
Hansen was asked to compare this situation with that in pool play at the 2015 World Cup when he felt compelled to offer similar assurances his team would come through in the crux.
There were similarities, and differences, he said.
"At the World Cup we had a team primed and ready to go. We had all the biscuits in the tin that you'd need. This group is at the infancy of that stage. It's another two and a-half years before we get to that point.
"There's always going to be a dip because it's very difficult to go four years without injury, without feeling some comfort. The key to being successful is feeling comfortable being uncomfortable, and we're working through that.
"Getting injuries makes you uncomfortable, drawing a test series makes the All Blacks uncomfortable. Not playing for 80 minutes makes you feel uncomfortable. Making errors we normally wouldn't make because we've been put under pressure by good defensive systems makes you uncomfortable.
"There's plenty of uncomfortableness. We've just got to overcome it."
Hansen also credited opponents with getting better, and with meeting the challenge of playing the No 1 side in the world head on.
"They don't have any problem getting themselves to where they need to get to mentally, but we've got to work at that all the time. We have to have a work ethic Sunday to Friday that equals the teams below us.
"I believe we have a good work ethic. I believe we're going in the right direction. I believe we've got a good plan. If you're not happy with how we're going, just be patient and we'll get there. I promise you."