All Blacks coach Steve Hansen wants to put a steel plate on soft underbelly exposed last year.

It doesn't bother Steve Hansen that his All Blacks were seen as vulnerable last year. He mostly agreed. But although the critics made assessment about the All Blacks based on their performance, Hansen made his knowing they had suffered horrendous injuries that forced them to dig deep into their talent pool.

If the All Blacks are still considered to be vulnerable by the end of this year, it will be a different story. Hansen won't be happy with that because the intention in 2018 is to put a steel plate on the soft underbelly exposed last year and start building a head of steam to take into World Cup year. The mission is to go from vulnerable to venerable.

The plan is to subtly refine the game plan, build core and key combinations and effectively reach December with the rest of the world more than concerned at the form, momentum and consist-ency of the All Blacks. The word vulnerable shouldn't be connected with the 2018 All Blacks - formidable, foreboding, menacing and relentless are what Hansen wants.

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"Hopefully we won't have the same number of injuries as we did last year and will be able to build combinations and have consistency in selection," Hansen tells the Weekend Herald.

"We had a selection meeting recently and as went through each position we realised we have got good depth, but also that if everyone is fit, we have some areas where it is obvious who we will select and some positions where we will have some really good challenges.

"We can't stand still either in terms of the way we play so we will make a few subtle changes but our game will still be built on our core skills."

There's 12 weeks of Super Rugby before the All Blacks assemble to play France, and it's a period in which Hansen wants to see the old hands who missed much of last year - Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg - make definitive statements about their appetite and readiness.

What the All Blacks discovered in 2017 is they have enviable depth - their third or often fourth-choice player in a specific position is thrown into the fray and miraculously finds his feet. What they also discovered is that there is a bit of mental starch within the ranks.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Not everyone will agree, but the All Blacks, considering their personnel challenges, held together remarkably well and finished 2017 with an increased confidence that they have developed, to some degree at least, the sort of resilience they will need to continue to preserve their place as the world's No1 side.

In the context of the World Cup cycle, 2017 was hugely significant because while the All Blacks may have been vulnerable, South Africa, Argentina, Scotland, France and Wales weren't able to take advantage of it and only once in three tests were Australia able to claim a victory.

But if 2017 was about building the base and learning to cope with adversity, this year is about refining the apex and being more focused on inflicting adversity. Having a host of test quality players is helpful, but it doesn't actually win World Cups. What wins World Cups is performance and typically that is delivered when coaches are clear about their best starting team, having spent the previous 18 months consistently picking it.

Hansen hints he and his fellow selectors already feel they know much of the likely make-up of their best side. Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Owen Franks could become an imposing, seasoned unit by the World Cup. Sam Whitelock and Retallick are already the best locking combination in the world. Liam Squire, Sam Cane and Kieran Read need time together to hone their work as a loose trio to become as effective as the Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Read combination which was so good at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups. Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett are clearly the best decision-making halves pairing in the southern hemisphere.

Midfield and the back three are the areas where the All Blacks have to be most open mind. The departure of Lima Sopoaga has left first-five as a moderate area of concern but not one that is keeping Hansen awake at night.

Damian McKenzie, having amassed 12 caps at fullback, is likely to be the back-up No10 in the first tests of the year, with Richie Mo'unga the strongest contender to fill the third squad spot.

"Damian is pretty comfortable in our environment having been there for two years now," says Hansen. "What he needs is time in the No10 jersey with the Chiefs.

"The third person, whoever that may be - and Richie, having had a brief taste with us probably has his nose in front - needs time to get comfortable being in our environment as well as time in the saddle.

"We will look to give these guys opportunities to lead and present to the team about how we want to play and then also try to find games for them to play in."

Hansen reckons there is now a group of about 45 players capable of playing test football and although that is a considerable number, he wants to keep casting the net because he can't forget Nehe Milner-Skudder wasn't on the radar in 2014 but was the preferred right wing at the World Cup a year later.

So there could yet be the odd surprise but 2018 is unlikely to be remembered for catching everyone unawares, but instead, should become, when we look back, the point at which we can all see that the All Blacks put a marker down to say they began their push to the World Cup summit.

And by mid-October, the World Cup will be in full view. That's when the All Blacks head to Japan for two tests, before carrying on to Europe where they will play England, Ireland and Italy.

"Going to Japan is going to be a dummy run for the World Cup," says Hansen. "We will stay at the same bases we are going to stay in at the World Cup and play at two of the venues.

"To win a World Cup you have to play at least three really tough games in the knock-out rounds so the schedule we have gives us a great opportunity to play around with different concepts that we might encounter.

"Australia are a good side and England are too, as are Ireland, so to play those three teams in four weeks is going to be tough."

Of course the rest of the rugby world sees that game against England as the defining 80 minutes of the season and easily the most significant game since the World Cup final. Surely Hansen sees it as more than just another game?

"There will obviously be a lot of interest in that game," says Hansen, "and that will be good for us to have that bigger build-up. But it won't be a game that defines our season or one that will have any bearing on the World Cup.

"It will give us a good idea, though, of where we need to improve and it's obviously going to be a big challenge to play Ireland the week after. So we will find out a lot about ourselves and where we are at."

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