All Blacks still licking their Lions wounds as they eye a Bledisloe bounceback
The All Blacks took a good, hard look in the mirror on the back of the Lions series stalemate, and have embraced the uncomfortable truth about what stared back at them.
As skipper Kieran Read and his men crossed the Tasman on Sunday afternoon to begin preparations for Bledisloe I in Sydney, it was made clear that they first had to rule a line under the surprisingly problematic drawn series against Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions before they could stride purposefully on to phase two of their season – the Rugby Championship, and its associated micro challenges within.
First up on that front is back-to-back tests against the wounded Wallabies, and the chance to tuck that prized Bledisloe Cup away for a 15th straight year.
But in order to move forward, sometimes you have to take a look back, and Read, who spoke to media at the team's downtown Auckland hotel on Sunday morning, made it abundantly clear that soaking up the stark realities from the Lions series was an important aspect of this team regathering itself and, hopefully, reasserting its dominance.
"We reviewed that series comprehensively, and the management have done a lot on it as well," said Read shortly before jumping on the big bird to cross the ditch. "It's part of a massive learning for us as a group, what we took out of that series around how we need play this game and how we need to react to pressure.
"Hopefully it will show in this championship, in these Bledisloe Cup games, what we've learned."
There was no doubt the Lions, with that rush defence, and with their own ability to meet the All Blacks physically, took the world champions out of their comfort zone. It remains to be seen whether the Wallabies have the cattle to follow their lead, but Read admitted that some painful lessons had to be absorbed.
"It's a game at the highest level where there are small margins, and teams certainly are chasing us and they're getting pretty close. What we can't do is just sit where we are.
"We've got to continue to push ourselves and ensure we play as well as we can every week and give ourselves the best opportunity. When we do that we're hard to beat; if we don't there are opportunities for other teams."
The Lions showed that momentum can be usurped from these All Blacks, even if they had a little help from some rather peculiar refereeing, and a mounting injury toll in the New Zealand camp. Read is adamant there will be gain from the pain.
"It's something you've got to take. It's a reality," the skipper said of an unsatisfactory last two tests. "We've got to make sure it helps us. We've got a good couple of years coming up, and something pretty big after it at the World Cup, where there will be similar pressures from what we had a month ago. We have to learn from it.
"We certainly got some great lessons out of that series, and a lot of young men came in and experienced the type of pressure that matches some of those big test matches in a World Cup. So to get that experience first-hand for a lot of guys is really beneficial."
The reality was the All Blacks' individual skills were short of the mark in the last two tests against the Lions. There has been a big accent on execution of the basics since the squad reassembled on Thursday and started the buildup process with a short training hitout and the "game of three halves" romp in Pukekohe on Friday night.
Openside flanker Sam Cane said the Lions review sent a strikingly clear message about where they had to improve.
"A lot of it was down to skillsets. We created opportunities, but for one reason or another, often very small margins, we weren't quite good enough to make the most of them. We'd done 90 per cent of the work but the other 10 per cent we didn't quite get right.
"It was good to go back over it because we'd transitioned straight back into [Super Rugby], and the coaches has done a lot of work for us to refresh and realise there are areas there we need to get better at."
Both Read and Cane hoped the All Blacks, perhaps late in 2019, would look back and realise that the Lions series had been a painful step in the process of making them a more complete side.
"It certainly imprints those learnings pretty deep," added Cane. "Hopefully in a couple of years at the big dance we can look back and, in a funny way, be thankful for it."
Bledisloe I starts that healing process. The All Blacks have a reputation to reassert, not to mention a big trophy to retain.