All Blacks back their feisty fullback Damian McKenzie to rise to the challenge
If Damian McKenzie had been listening he might have blushed a little, so fulsome was All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster in his praise for the diminutive fullback.
As Foster addressed the media following Tuesday's first major training hitout of Springboks test week at the Blues' Alexandra Park headquarters, the All Blacks' attack guru found himself leaping to the defence of two of his backline stars.
Beauden Barrett was one. Par for the course there. And McKenzie, who is making a fair first of filling in at fullback for the absent Ben Smith, was the other.
Neither nailed last Saturday's two-paced 39-22 victory over the Pumas in the manner that, say, Vaea Fifita did. Barrett missed three sideline conversions in the first half, got sinbinned and largely failed to impress until he moved to fullback in the second half.
Some rugby pundits are convinced he has been figured out by opposing teams as a 10 and has hit a form slump. There are even calls for Lima Sopoaga to start.
McKenzie had one really good Bledisloe, one mostly good one, and dropped a bit of high ball on Saturday in New Plymouth and was well beaten by Nico Sanchez for the Pumas' only try.
But Foster made it clear that as well as Barrett having their full backing at first five-eighths, McKenzie will be persevered with as their fullback of choice in the absence of Smith and the injured Jordie Barrett.
"Damian is probably on a par with the rest of our game ... he's got a heck of a lot more good points than bad points, and he's learning all the time," said Foster. "I'm loving his desire to just play regardless of what happens. He'll make a mistake but doesn't go into his shell.
"He's got a great opportunity for a long learning process. He'll have the chance to play regularly and realise test matches are different beasts and the margins for error are a bit tighter and errors get punished pretty harshly.
"He's had a couple of those moments, but he's got back on the horse pretty quickly."
Foster also clarified those high-ball "errors" from Saturday which the Boks have no doubt imprinted on their scouting report.
"He's got no issues under the high ball. He shows a lot of courage, and he certainly won't die wondering. Against Argentina some of it was positional. He was asked to catch a couple that shouldn't have been his. But his attitude of wanting to get there meant he wasn't stable enough."
Long-term, the All Blacks view McKenzie as a 2012-15 Barrett-type supersub, covering 10 and 15. But for now they're happy with him accumulating experience at the back.
"We're getting to know his game, and he's getting to know us. There's some youthful exuberance in our backline. When they get it right it's spectacular, but they've got to learn discipline, so we don't feel like we've got to have the million-dollar play each time we touch the ball."
Foster similarly felt Barrett was in "a great spot", and refused to jump on the goalkicking concern bandwagon.
"He missed three conversions five metres from the sideline ... overall we're really happy with his technique."
Asked if Barrett was held to different standards because of his 2016 heroics, Foster responded: "He's still a young man, and he's done a fantastic job of running our team. Is he perfect? No. Is every moment going to be brilliant? No.
"He's learning the art of 10 and all the adjustments you've got ... his depth, his own skillset, the decisions, the listening ... it's not the easiest position, but he's doing a great job."
He also called Sopoaga's excellent 30 minutes off the bench on Saturday "the most influential time he's had in the black jersey", which indicates they're happy with the one-two punch there.
In broader terms, the coach spoke of the All Blacks changing aspects of their game with longer-term goals in mind. He admitted pain often came before gain in those scenarios.
"Our high points are really high, and we've just got a few more low points than we'd like spread in the middle," he said. "We just need to string more good moments together."
And the glowing terms with which he spoke about a Boks side the All Blacks have beaten nine out of ther last 10 times indicated that Thursday's dawn will reveal a full-strength lineup with Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Liam Squire and Ryan Crotty restored.
"We've got massive respect for the way they're playing their rugby. You've got to take your hat off to the way they've rebounded from last year. Clearly they've got a youthful team that want to play for each other, and that's a dangerous beast."
Israel Dagg (knee) and Vaea Fifita (shoulder) sat out Tuesday's training and are under selection clouds.