All Blacks turn new page with series win over Wales
WELLINGTON – The All Blacks sent a clear message with their 3-0 test series sweep against Wales that they had definitively moved on from the legacy left by the departure of six stalwarts who guided them to their third World Cup title last year.
The series against the Six Nations runners-up was seen as a benchmark to determine how previous understudies would step out of the shadows of some of the all-time greats of the game like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
It was also to be used as a chance to develop more players to face the British and Irish Lions next year and for the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.
While Hansen named six uncapped players in his squad he relied on players he had developed throughout the previous four years for the first two tests.
Only centre Seta Tamanivalu and flanker Ardie Savea earned their first test caps, with Savea’s explosive speed and dynamism earning him cult status.
He rolled the dice a little for the third match in Dunedin, giving Elliot Dixon, Liam Squire and Ofa Tu’ungafasi their first caps while some of his less-experienced players were given the opportunity to prove themselves ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Hansen said after the 46-6 victory in Dunedin, in which the All Blacks’ ability to exploit space was evident, that he felt his side were where he wanted them to be.
“That first 65 minutes was probably as good as we wanted it to be at this stage of the season,” Hansen said. “But you’re always wanting more aren’t you?.
“We’re not the finished article but we’re not too far away.”
The gap left by McCaw was more than admirably filled by Sam Cane, who was less flashy than Savea but more industrious, while Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett demonstrated they could control a game at flyhalf.
Hansen’s biggest concern prior to the series was the midfield, with Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu moving to clubs in France after the World Cup.
While Ryan Crotty did not have the line-breaking prowess of Nonu — few players in the world do — he did what was required of him in attack while his organisation of the defence was superb according to fullback Israel Dagg.
“Crotts is just Crotts. He runs great lines, makes his tackles all day and talks all the time,” said Dagg, who showed he was getting back to his best form after failing to make the World Cup squad last year.
George Moala’s performance in Dunedin, in his second test and first at centre, also gave Hansen something to consider after not being initially named in the squad.
Hansen, who has already said Sonny Bill Williams would come back after the rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics, was also keen to give the injured Charlie Ngatai an opportunity, indicating he felt the talent was there and it just needed to be developed.
One glaring concern, however, was the performances of winger Julian Savea, who was substituted early in the first test and dropped for the second.
While he went looking for work in Dunedin he did not have many chances to show he had shaken out his slump and questions will be asked whether he can regain the form that made him an automatic choice since his debut in 2012. -Reuters