All Blacks nowhere near the complete unit yet
June 25, 2014
The All Blacks were on fire early in Hamilton © Getty Images
In posing the question in last week's column about how much the All Blacks could improve in comparison to their opposition ahead of the World Cup, I realise I only dealt with two parts of the equation: skill levels and the physical stature of players young and old. As if to remind us that more is involved, the All Blacks tore England apart in Hamilton, especially in the first half, to show the absolute need also for self-belief, determined attitude, confidence and 100% trust in your team-mate alongside you.
New Zealand 36-13 England (Australia only)%]
The amazing thing about the magnitude of the All Blacks' win is the fact there are clearly grounds for coach Steve Hansen and his management team to work on; and that is potentially bad news for Australia, South Africa and Argentina in The Rugby Championship, and probably England come the end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere.
Hansen's team is nowhere near the complete unit yet, and there is nothing like a challenge to stir the blood of more experienced players. And in hitting England in their supposed areas of advantage in the third Test - up front and in the midfield - the All Blacks left England's management with a severe headache. As Andy Farrell said, England now have it in black and white what intensity looks like - and what it doesn't look like; it comes down to what is largely referred to, around training grounds all over New Zealand, as the "top two inches".
New Zealand's brains trust decided after doing their analysis that England's weakness was its perceived strength. They basically took Manu Tuilagi out of the game, and left England wondering how he could add something to their game plan. And some old All Blacks will have been delighted with the way the pack responded to the England challenge. England may have been bigger and heavier but they were exposed, both in Dunedin and Hamilton, to the fast game and found wanting by a pack that hunted in unison.
Dan Carter: remember him? © Getty Images
England can claim they had several players recovering from injury who will bolster their team in the games ahead. And that's true. But it shouldn't be forgotten that the All Blacks were without Dan Carter, Charles Piutau, Sam Cane and Luke Romano from their side as well.
The trick for New Zealand looking ahead to the Rugby World Cup, to be played on grounds a little softer, is to be able to play that game under those conditions. Then again, they are doing that each time they play in the northern hemisphere so they should be well used to it. The other factor, especially after they have negotiated round-robin play against the lesser lights, is to ensure they are better equipped for knockout play than they were in Cardiff in 2007.
The other aspect of the series against England was that New Zealand finished it with a share of the world record of 17 consecutive Test victories. To claim it for themselves, they need to beat Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test of The Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks will play that Test knowing there is no such thing as invincibility, and knowing their run will come to an end at some stage; but there is the ability to force a belief of invincibility into your opposition's psyche.
England head home to find "a rock under their towel every time they lie on a beach somewhere" © Getty Images
England, and their media, trumpeted after their first Test against New Zealand that they had shredded the aura of the All Blacks. But they weren't claiming that after the third Test. The All Blacks systematically destroyed the self-belief England had built up in the first two games, and sent them home to catch up on summer, as my old mate and captain Sean Fitzpatrick used to say, with a rock under their towel every time they lie on a beach somewhere.
At the same time, the All Blacks players return to Super Rugby with burrs under their respective saddles knowing there are still aspects of their game that need attention and knowing nothing is surer than the fact they will be tested by their opponents down the line.
Australia will be hugely boosted by their clean sweep of France, and that was just the tonic they needed as Ewen McKenzie showed the benefit of the time to work with his side that was denied him ahead of last year's series. Australia are going to be competitive again, that is for certain, and they have some firepower that will well and truly stretch the All Blacks.
Australia have plenty of firepower to stretch New Zealand © Getty Images
South Africa showed how much they have advanced as well when their never-say-die attitude was required to beat Wales in the second Test. It is not hard to imagine how hard that loss would have been for Wales. They had a superb chance to strike a blow, not only for themselves but for the northern hemisphere game, but were undone in a manner very similar to that in which the All Blacks denied England in the first Test and in in which they finished the third Test with their injury-time try in Hamilton.
Growing confidence in back play is a tremendous sight from South Africa, and some more outstanding contests are in prospect against the old foe this year.
Before then, of course, we return to Super Rugby and, with so many local derbies before the end of the competition, the All Blacks selectors will be on tenterhooks for each week's injury announcements.
Two crucial games this weekend involve New Zealand teams.
The Highlanders host the Chiefs in Dunedin; the visitors, three points behind on the ladder, need a win to get closer to the top six, while the Highlanders could do themselves a big play-offs favour with a win.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, travel to Wellington to meet a Hurricanes team that is also in a must-win situation now; victory over the highest-placed New Zealand team will be a tough task for the Canes.
The Blues head to Perth to play a Western Force team that is sitting in seventh place, one point away from the top six and ready to pounce.
It is a fascinating return to a competition that still has plenty to offer.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown