Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks lay foundation to build on

Ben Smith is tackled by Jonathan Davies. Photo / Greg Bowker
Ben Smith is tackled by Jonathan Davies. Photo / Greg Bowker

A foundation laid, the All Blacks will be all about tightening and intensifying in the next two weeks.

They opened their 2016 account with a strong 39-21 win over Wales tonight and, yet, showed little of their hand tactically but plenty of it mentally.

If there was a worry lurking for the All Blacks coaches, it was the unknown around the strength of the leadership group. They knew they had replaced the departed golden generation with talented and able players; they had no doubts about that.

What they couldn't be sure about was the ability of the new team to deal with the mental pressures of test football. They needed to see that the team could respond to being in dark places and find a way through tricky periods. They got that proof.

They saw captain Kieran Read take control and connect with those around him. They saw the All Blacks take deep breaths, stay calm and adapt their strategy and execution to slowly grind then break Wales.

That was the bit that pleased head coach Steve Hansen the most.

"For large parts of the game it wasn't perfect but what we did get was learning to keep our composure and our cool under pressure," he said. "How you deal with those mistakes is key. As a team, we made quite a few. That's OK, as long as we learn. New skip has to take a lot of credit for that.

"You don't win tests without quality performances. This one was a little rusty. That seems to be a fact [for first tests of the year] so we have to accept that. When you judge a team the most is when they are under pressure. How well are we going to react to it? The response was first-rate and I think they put a line in the sand. This group has started and this group is going to re-establish it."

It was around the 60-minute mark when the mental strength of the All Blacks came into its own. It was also when the bench, on the field earlier than usual, drove the pace of the game to a higher level.

Fatigue was creeping into the game, Wales were beginning to wonder whether they should ease back with the adventure and grind to the tape. They were slipping into a defensive mind-set and the All Blacks picked it. They upped the pace, looked for space first and they started to offload.

Wales couldn't get their hands on the ball. They couldn't get in front of the juggernaut and knew they were ripe for the picking.

It was a case of when not if the All Blacks would break them and get the scoreboard looking the way they wanted it. It was a case of persevering and believing, of knowing that if they kept the ball moving, kept the runners on both sides of the ball carrier, they would eventually score.

There was calm and control in that period. There was certainty and strength of leadership and, from that base, the creativity increased.

Knowing Wales were struggling, that the game was almost in the bag, the offloads began to stack up. Aaron Cruden drifted to the midfield more where he was able to use his pace and agility to damaging effect and it felt a little hopeless for the Welsh.

The All Blacks were able to move up field 40-50m at a time before they had to recycle and then the whole thing would start again.

With a bit more polish, patience and communication, they could have pushed the score to the sort of place that would have had Wales wincing.

And that, really, is the nuts and bolts issue the All Blacks will be looking to fix over the next two weeks - starting better, with more cohesion and getting into that intense, aggressive mode earlier.

"I think that tempo is what we want to play from the start," said Read. "It's hard to do that when a team is fresh and we were a bit inaccurate. We are an 80-minute team. We expect our bench to lift us. It tests your bodies and your skills. We can get better but it is heading in the right direction."

- NZ Herald

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