Two games don’t make an international rugby winter, but after a 20-16 win against Argentina and a 16-all draw with South Africa, a rusty All Blacks machine is creaking.
I’m not writing off their World Cup chances of making it a threepeat yet, but the competition has improved while some of our older internationals are showing their age.
Skipper Kieran Read has not returned to his best after shoulder surgery. Nor have Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith who are all rusty after long lay-offs.
Fortunately, Sam Whitelock is after being very jaded after a long, gruelling 2018. But the painful dislocated shoulder suffered by locking partner Brodie Retallick could be a mortal blow to the team’s World Cup prospects if he fails to make a full recovery.
Under the guidance of Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches, most of the above will improve but not to the heights they reached when in their prime.
With Liam Squire having made himself unavailable, blindside flanker is still up for grabs though Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Read have the versatility to cover all three loose forward berths.
However while the experienced Read has naturally stated his preference for the No 8 jersey, it wouldn’t hurt if he and Savea interchanged positions throughout the game to allow Savea’s superior pace to add penetration off the back of the scrum.
With just two tries scored in two tests, the All Blacks attack is not functioning with the thrust it once did although Jack Goodhue’s try against the Springboks was a beaut after Beauden Barrett made a sharp break off a great Williams cut-out pass.
Goodhue has a future though he and Williams are not in the same class Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were in the 2011 and 2015 World Cup triumphs. And Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape are others staking their claims for starting spots without cementing them.
It is also worth remembering versatile Jordie Barrett has yet to be played in his best position of second-five after being given tests at fullback and both wings.
I applaud the selectors for starting both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett against the Boks with the former winning the No 10 jersey and Barrett moving to fullback where he was the All Blacks best back.
Mo’unga started slowly, having had two kicks charged down. However he remained cool-headed and sparkled in the second half when Dane Coles and Aaron Smith added spark coming off the reserves bench.
Nevertheless it was not a convincing performance with too many errors committed on a day superb defence blunted the attack of both sides.
Having recovered from their resounding loss to the Boks, the Australians, never short of confidence, will have gained more from their 16-10 win against the Pumas.
Meanwhile Hansen and his brain trust will want to put out their best team against them and could consider starting George Bridge, who has the allround skills of Ben Smith, on the left wing ahead of Rieko Ioane.
As Hansen has noted, Ioane went off the boil during the latter stages of the Super Championship. Which is true, but so did a Blues side that gave him few chances.
Meanwhile don’t ignore the Springboks World Cup prospects, remembering the All Blacks narrow 20-18 semi-final win against them in 2015.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer