Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Win sets ABs up for battles ahead

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Team lifted by physicality up front and performance of those under pressure

Malakai Fekitoa has emerged as a genuine midfield prospect. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Malakai Fekitoa has emerged as a genuine midfield prospect. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The third test victory, and particularly the manner of it, has left the All Blacks in a nice position ahead of the tough home-and-away challenges of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.

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For me, the most impressive element of the 36-13 win in Hamilton was the level of physicality the All Blacks brought to the contest, particularly up front. It was the physicality at the set-piece and breakdown that allowed the backs to operate more how we like to see them.

In the first two tests, I don't think the All Blacks won the physical battle up front, but they had a clear advantage on Saturday.

Another pleasing thing was that the guys who were under particular pressure, somewhat unfairly, going into the test were the ones who stood up the most. Tony Woodcock was outstanding in everything he did, whether it be the set-piece or the less noticeable work in and around the breakdown.

Cory Jane was heavily criticised after making some high-profile mistakes in Dunedin and he responded with a great game.

Aaron Cruden was another who stepped up. He was in a different boat from Jane and Woodcock in that he hadn't reached the age where people start questioning whether they are permanently on the slide, but he hasn't been at his sharpest and had a hungry, young Beauden Barrett pushing him hard for the No 10 jersey.

I agreed with the decision of Steve Hansen and the selectors to show faith in Cruden and keep starting him. I didn't think he had been poor in the first two tests, even if he wasn't at the top of his game, and he showed how valuable he was in Hamilton.

A lot of the good work in that first half came from him taking the ball flat and the calls he was making. You will notice he took the ball into heavy contact a couple of times early and this paved the way for a lot of the good work that was to follow.

England knew he was in a running mood and had to commit defenders to him. As soon as Cruden knew he was holding defenders, he then looked to take wider options and the space was there to exploit England's narrow defence.

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So the win leaves the All Blacks in a good position for the road forward. Their game is moving in the right direction, though Hansen would be the first to admit they're not at the level they'd like to be at yet, so there will be no complacency.

What they have achieved in this series is important:

• They have emphasised solidity in selection.

• Malakai Fekitoa has emerged as a genuine midfield prospect.

• The older guys have played their way back into form.

• Kieran Read has been re-introduced.

• Ben Smith has been a revelation at fullback.

• And with the return of Dan Carter, there is amazing depth at No 10.

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The All Blacks have that twin bonus of playing at a high level while having genuine competition for places. Look at the loose forwards. There's Read, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam and Sam Cane to come back into the reckoning. That's an enviable group of talent.

So everything is set up for a fantastic start to the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks will have a high level of internal motivation, with the world record test-win streak on the line, against a buoyant, resurgent Australian team that is unquestionably better than the one that was running around last year.

The Wallabies series against the French showed there is no team in the world that can allow their talented backs to have quick ball.

The All Black coaches might find the most gain in analysing the second test, which was more of a physical battle. The Wallabies struggled with this and I still think it is up front and in the set-piece where the All Blacks have a clear advantage over our transtasman foes.

South Africa were fluent and efficient in their first test win over Wales, but were lucky to win the second test over the weekend, even though at one stage they were playing against 13. They look to be a good set-piece and driving team, but I'm less sure about their backs and they seemed to be lacking a bit of punch in midfield.

Argentina are the big worry. They have yet to win a game in the Rugby Championship and have just been tipped over by Scotland, who had just dragged themselves out of the Six Nations' gutter.

Unless they show more rapid improvement than they have done, people are soon going to be asking what benefits they bring the Rugby Championship.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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