All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on Thursday moved to allay fears his world champion side were becoming stagnant, saying the uneven performances of 2017 were just part of the natural life-cycle of the team.
The All Blacks face a resurgent South Africa at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday with injuries sweeping through a squad which has struggled to reach the levels of 2016.
They battled against the linespeed defence of a well-drilled British and Irish Lions outfit and have gone off the boil for periods in the Rugby Championship despite winning all three games.
Hansen, however, said the team’s travails were of no concern on the road to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
“In 2016 we hit the road running,” he told reporters.
“We had a group of men who were primed and they really jumped at the opportunity.
“What has changed is (in) 2017 the game has changed and we’re learning to deal with that.
“You’re always going to have a tough time at some period in your life. It would appear this is the year where we are having to find out about ourselves.”
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The All Blacks have been impatient during the Rugby Championship, trying to force things at a high pace.
They shipped four unanswered tries after jumping out to a 54-6 lead after 48 minutes in the opener against Australia, then battled to a 35-29 victory in the return match against the Wallabies before a 39-22 win against Argentina last week.
The latter two games involved overturning second-half deficits, but Hansen said that was what pleased him the most.
“When you’re behind and 15 minutes into the second half and we managed to come back and win it, and comfortably, it’s not all bad,” he said.
“Last week we scored six tries. Only one side has done that against Argentina — us.
“So it was a pretty good achievement.”
Hansen’s brilliant record since succeeding Graham Henry after the 2011 World Cup win has set a high benchmark.
From 2012 until Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time in 2015, the team won 49 of their 54 tests. Last year they won 13 of 14 including all six Rugby Championship matches.
Hansen, however, said the bald results hid some below-par performances and games they could easily have lost.
“I think you’re kidding yourself if you think there were no poor games in those four years,” he said.
“The big difference was you had McCaw, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu … they were really at the end of their cycle. This group is at the beginning of theirs.
“So because of that, you’re seeing different things. It doesn’t mean they’re not a good team and it doesn’t mean they’re not going to get better.
“Yeah, it’s a bit tough at the moment. But I believe we are going in the right direction. We have a good plan. If you’re not happy with where we’re going, be patient.
“It’s another two and a half years before we get to the point where I would like us to be. We’ll get there. I promise you.”