COMMENT:

The All Blacks come to their last match of the year tomorrow in the knowledge they no longer stand head and shoulders above world rugby. This northern tour has seen Ireland beat them and England very unlucky to have a winning try disallowed. But more important than these results was the way England and Ireland played.

Both used pace and possession the way the All Blacks do. In fact England's first try, switching play to the blind side too fast for the New Zealand defence and sending a long pass wide to put the winger in, was opportunism of All Black class.

In Twickenham's steady rain it was the All Blacks who looked uncertain, working to an uncharacteristic kicking plan for the first 30 minutes. It looked like the coaches had thought too much about their tactics against the English and on the field the team was too slow to change them.

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Against Ireland, they were comprehensively beaten, not just on the scoreboard but in territory, possession and sheer grit. Often we see opponents start a match with more fire and intensity than the All Blacks but they seldom keep it up.

In the past the Irish have always faded well before the end. Not last weekend. The team coached by Kiwi Joe Schmidt never faded. They kept the pressure on the All Blacks to the final whistle.

It was wonderful to see. Wonderful for rugby.

Steve Hansen said before embarking on this tour that the coaches were treating it as a dummy run for next year's World Cup. To win the Cup they need to beat two or three teams of top quality on their day and England and Ireland offered that challenge in their own ways. But even the All Black coaches probably did not expect the quality they got.

After the Dublin defeat, Hansen made it known they were trying different tactics on this tour which they have yet to perfect. Most obviously, they are tying to build a game around two pivotal attacking talents in Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie. The pair produced a sublime try to McKenzie against England but otherwise the double act is still a work in progress.

The coaches must also want to make more use of Richie Mo'unga's fine instincts at first five. They are almost spoiled for riches.

The depth of excellence and resilience Hansen has built into his squad is so extensive that Barrett's new goal kicking prowess is going almost unremarked. At the beginning of the season it was the one weakness in his game. Now it is hard to recall when he last missed one, and he has acquired a dropkick too.

It is just as well this team has discovered how fast others are catching up on them. England, Ireland and South Africa have given the coaches much to ponder over the summer. All are playing now at the pace and standard Hansen's All Blacks have set since he took over in 2012.

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Hansen hopes to take them to a second World Cup but it is now clear that to do so he will have to take them to a yet higher gear. It is a mouth watering prospect.