Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: All Blacks finish with mixed bag

Aaron Smith makes a break during the second test against Wales. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Smith makes a break during the second test against Wales. Photo / Getty Images

A step up in some regards, sideways in others and an unwelcome early check out left the All Blacks with the usual mix of satisfaction and irritation that early-season tests induce.

Much like last week, though, the positives out numbered the negatives and, with news that Aaron Cruden hasn't damaged anything in his neck, there is a degree of optimism the All Blacks have built yet more of the foundation they were hoping to do.

Defensively, other than the last 10 minutes when perhaps they were guilty of switching off a little with the game obviously won, they were considerably improved. They were quicker across the ground, more aware of where they needed to be and, most critically, made a significantly greater number of telling tackles.

That's the key to them playing at their best, making the sort of tackles that stop opponents behind the gainline and leave them scrambling to recycle.

"[We had] a lot more cohesiveness and intensity in the hit," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "There were a lot more dominant tackles than there were last week, although we didn't get many rewards for getting over the ball.

"There was a lot more clarity about what we were trying to do. We scored five good tries so we have to be happy about our attack play and we defended well for long periods of time.

"Our lineout was a lot better and we managed to put pressure on their ball. They resorted to having to throw people on the ground and we scored two set-piece tries from scrum."

The clinical nature of some of the attack in that mid-period of the second half was particularly encouraging for the coaching team. Half-chances were made and taken.

A big part in that was Aaron Smith's passing, which was heart in mouth at times - flinging the ball so fast and flat as to entice the Welsh defence to surge at it, only to have it go past them and leave them out of position.

It's a seriously good weapon and he wasn't the only one throwing measured and incisive passes.

Beauden Barrett was calm and deliberate on the ball when he came on at first-five, careful to take his time and pick his passing options well.

That was important, giving the All Blacks the means to make lethal strikes and capitalise on the pressure they exerted. That lethal striking gives them confidence that if they can play more accurately and with a touch more poise and composure for longer, then they can start building performances that will be tough for opponents to live with.

That wasn't the case last night. For much of the first half, they created space, built promising opportunities but didn't have the control and discipline they needed to get any reward.

"I think we had them under pressure but we either dropped the ball or threw a loose ball or made a poor decision," said Hansen. "It was about creating pressure and keeping it on for long enough to take advantage of."

All Blacks hooker Dane Coles said much the same thing. The team came in at halftime aware that they almost had Wales where they wanted them.

"We talked at halftime about holding onto the ball, respecting it, being direct and, when we did that, we got the rewards," he said. "We had to earn the right to score. We want to play with quick ball so we have to react [to the breakdown] a bit quicker and better than we did."

- Herald on Sunday

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