Steve Hansen dismissed criticism of his New Zealand side this week as just like in 2015 when some wrongly questioned whether, at the ages of 34 and 33 respectively, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were creaking too much for their last hurrah to be successful.

Except it has not. How could it be? The "peripheral noise" feels more justifiable this time around.

For a start, Hansen's current crop has had to negotiate a unique leadership vacuum as they bid for three successive global titles. As well as McCaw and Carter, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and Conrad Smith all stepped away from international duty prior to this Rugby World Cup cycle.

Hansen excluded Owen Franks from his 31-man squad for Japan, concerned about the tighthead prop's mobility. Each of those eight players mentioned sit within the top 14 most-capped All Blacks of all time. Intuitive, conscientious and hugely popular coach and mentor Wayne Smith also left the set-up.

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In addition, in the past year New Zealand have lost three times – the same number of defeats they suffered over 71 outings between September 2011 and November 2016. South Africa rattled them last September. Ireland kept them try-less two months later. Australia ruthlessly capitalised on Scott Barrett's red card this August.

There was a curiously clunky run of five matches in which they failed to score more than 20 points on four occasions – against England, Ireland, Argentina and the Springboks. For context, that has only happened 12 times in total since the start of 2012. And yet, the lingering question remains: Have New Zealand been tinkering with another Rugby World Cup campaign in mind?

South Africa defence coach Jacques Nienaber thinks so. He has required plenty of caffeine in the build-up to Saturday's Pool B encounter with the All Blacks.

"They keep me awake for hours," he said with a laugh on Wednesday. "Lots of coffee."

Nienaber relishes the role of studying opponents to pick up attacking trends. Unsurprisingly, he is fascinating on the tactical tweaks New Zealand have gradually introduced to combat rush defences – changes perhaps prompted by the British and Irish Lions in 2017.

Steve Hansen during a media conference in Tokyo. Photo / Photosport
Steve Hansen during a media conference in Tokyo. Photo / Photosport

When the All Blacks next faced the notoriously aggressive Andy Farrell defence, in Dublin against Ireland last November, after two epic contests with South Africa earlier in 2018, Nienaber noticed different attacking patterns.

"Myself and Rassie [Erasmus] had a long discussion: 'Do you think it's by accident that is happening or is it something they are trying to evolve?' Then we played them in Wellington [this year] and saw more of it."

Traditionally, New Zealand's forwards adopted a 1-3-3-1 formation, with a pair of three-man pods holding the centre of the field and one man hanging on either touchline.

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The new shape hinges on dual distributors Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett at fly-half and full-back, as well as a mobile back row featuring Ardie Savea and Sam Cane either side of Kieran Read.

Nienabar believes it is more of a 1-2-3-2 now, and that New Zealand have been figuring out how to most effectively arrange their forwards within it. Savea, for instance, has been on his own out wide, carving through tacklers.

Neither Nienaber nor South Africa number eight Duane Vermeulen would be shocked to see further innovative alterations for Rugby World Cup 2019. With so much analysis and footage so readily available, genuinely surprising strategies are rare in modern rugby union. However, New Zealand appear to accomplish it.

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The manner of their brilliant performance in the first Test against the Lions in 2017, with waves of runners flooding unexpectedly close to breakdowns, certainly bewildered their touring opponents.

Whether or not they have been holding back tactics intentionally, the ruthless streak in All Blacks selection remains. Hansen has dropped Rieko Ioane and benched Ben Smith for the tournament opener this weekend in order to field wings George Bridge and Sevu Reece.

Ryan Crotty and Mo'unga, Crusaders colleagues in the backline, can help the rapid rookies excel. And, if South Africa offer up counter-attacking opportunities, Reece, Bridge and Beauden Barrett represent an electric back-three trio.

A lack of sheer heft, compared to sides such as South Africa and England, could be a concern. As Read admitted with one of his trademark sideways nods "it's probably the first time I've been the biggest loose forward out there [for New Zealand]".

Yet, with Brodie Retallick poised to return from a shoulder injury for the knock-out stages, the All Blacks will grow in stature over the next two months. And even if their squad might seem green in some areas, there are three players – Read, Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams – chasing three from three.

Not even McCaw and Carter managed that.


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