28 Jun 2016

All Blacks ace first test of 2016

5:38 am on 28 June 2016

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has every right to be happy.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen Photo: PHOTOSPORT

His side wrapped up a series clean sweep against Wales at the weekend, coming through their first test of the post World Cup era with flying colours.

The transition from a veteran-laden side to a new brood proved relatively smooth and coach Steve Hansen can afford to be pleased.

There are no other teams in world rugby that could lose six veterans, including legends McCaw and Carter, and over 500 test caps, and still largely maintain their levels of performance. Hansen's men did just that, and they'll be hoping they've now finally laid the ghost of players past to rest.

The team stuck to the high skill, high speed gameplan and while the execution was at times rusty, the intent and understanding of the strategy was good.

The new senior leadership group stepped up, helping the team remain calm under pressure, whether on defence or on the scoreboard.

The group appeared to maintain the unwavering belief, built during McCaw's reign, that they would win if they executed the game plan they wanted to employ.

While test matches can appear close, the recent pattern of the All Blacks running rampant in the last 20 minutes looks set to continue.

Wales led 18-15 and were level at 10-all in the first and second test respectively, before going on to lose by 18 and 14 points.

The Welsh were down 18-6 at half-time in the final test in Dunedin and ended up losing by 40 as the All Blacks scored 22 unanswered second half points.

The All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read.

The All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Captain Kieran Read has consistently been one of the All Blacks most consistent performers in recent years and he has comfortably taken on the McCaw-esque leadership role of being the best player on the paddock.

New Zealand's set piece was strong against a solid Welsh pack and they also managed to successfully blood players, with loose forwards Ardie Savea, Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire all impressing, Savea in particular.

Elliot Dixon in action for the All Blacks 2016.

Elliot Dixon in action for the All Blacks 2016. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The midfield remains the biggest area of concern. Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa were solid but were exposed at times and the combination wasn't totally convincing. They were however robbed of a third test to prove themselves, with Fekitoa ruled out of the final match with injury.

Rookie centre Seta Taminavalu is set to make his All Blacks debut on Saturday night.

Seta Taminivalu. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Seta Taminivalu came off the bench for the first two tests, playing the majority of the second following Fekitoa's face on face tackle with hulking Welsh midfielder Jamie Roberts.

While providing some strong running and skilful skip passing the Chiefs midfielder looked hesitant at times, was often a step behind the play and was found wanting on defence a couple of times as he struggled to get into position.

He'll get better, but he needs time for the All Blacks game plan to become second nature. He may not have enough of that time before the tests against the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas.

George Moala was thrust into the starting centre role for the dead rubber in Dunedin, further hinting at Hansen and co's unwillingness to start Tamanivalu in the Rugby Championship.

George Moala in action against Wales 2016.

George Moala in action against Wales 2016. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

George Moala.

George Moala in action against Wales. Photo: Photosport

The All Blacks coaches wanted to see what Moala, a one-test player, could do in that role. He made the most of his opportunity producing a powerful performance, though he's now out injured for a month.

The Chiefs' Charlie Ngatai's injury is frustrating the All Blacks coaches, he was their first cab off the rank behind Crotty and Fekitoa and they would have loved to have seen some more of him.

Ultimately though this problem could be solved as early as the second test of the Rugby Championship, when Sonny Bill Williams returns to the All Blacks from the New Zealand Sevens team and the Rio Olympics.

Williams will return half a week before the All Blacks first test of the Rugby Championship against Australia in Sydney. While Hansen says he won't play that test, could he be back in the side as early as the second game against the Wallabies in Wellington a week later?

Another debate surrounds Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and the famous No.7 jersey.

The All Blacks' flankers Ardie Savea and Sam Cane.

The All Blacks' flankers Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Savea's impact off the bench was significant in the first two tests and his form with the Hurricanes has been exceptional. Many pundits have been clamouring for Savea to start.

While suitably impressed with Savea's showings, the All Blacks coaches have said they're happy with what Cane is doing and have signalled he'll remain first choice openside for some time yet.

Ardie Savea scores his first try for the All Blacks.

Ardie Savea scores his first try for the All Blacks. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

All Black loosie Sam Cane

All Black loosie Sam Cane Photo: PHOTOSPORT

They play different roles and while Cane's might be less glamourous, his importance to the success of the All Blacks side shouldn't be underplayed.

Perhaps they'll explore the possibility of both starting, reminiscent of the when the Wallabies played two opensides in Phil Waugh and George Smith.

Wing Julian Savea had an off series by his standards, but the questions being raised about his selection for the Rugby Championship should be quashed here. He was a star at last year's World Cup and has scored 39 tries in just 42 tests.

Julian Savea during the first All Blacks v Wales test at Eden Park 11 June 2016.


Julian Savea has been dropped for the second test against Wales.

Julian Savea playing against Wales. Photo: Photosport

His strike rate of tries per test is the best among the All Blacks most prolific scorers. At just 25 years old, he's just ten tries away from Doug Howlett's all-time New Zealand record of 49 test tries. Howlett took 62 tests to get to that number, giving Savea another 20 matches to score 10 tries.

While Savea's place in the squad is safe his starting spot is not. With a resurgent Israel Dagg proving impossible not to pick at fullback and vice-captain Ben Smith a lock in on one wing, it'll likely be left to Savea and Waisake Naholo to fight it out for the one remaining place in the back three.

On current form, Naholo wins that race.