The All Blacks are relishing the prospect of two weeks of top quality Test rugby after easing into the season with victories over Fiji and a weakened South Africa in which they ran up 14 tries and 100 points.
This was always going to be a season of looking ahead for New Zealand with the prospect of a World Cup on home soil, and the huge weight of expectation that goes with it, coming at the end of the Tri-Nations.
Graham Henry and his coaches have been poring over their squad like mechanics over a high performance car on a shakedown run, noting where it is functioning well, but also keeping a keen eye out for anything that might break down in race conditions.
The next two weeks will provide the intensity they can expect at the business end of the World Cup, a Test in Auckland against the free-running Wallabies, before a trip to South Africa to face a more recognizable Springboks side.
“I think we’re making the right steps, there’s no doubt there’s going to be a huge contest at Eden Park next week,” Henry told reporters after the 40-7 win over the world champions on Saturday.
“I’m looking forward to that game, I think it’s going to be a real test of our mentality, our ability to handle things that are quite different from what the South Africans do, because of the quality of the Australian backs,” Henry said. “We’re going to get the same in Port Elizabeth, we’re going to get probably the two best teams in the world in two big test matches over the next two weeks.
“I think we’re ready for that, we’re looking forward to that, it’ll be a huge challenge,” he added.
Former headmaster Henry was delighted with the step up the All Blacks made in Wellington after a stop-start performance in the 60-14 win over Fiji, awarding his players seven out of 10 for their efforts.
“The improvement was obvious in the set piece, the lineouts, very, very fluent and ... and we played well at the breakdown,” he said. “Still things to work on obviously. Our kicking game at times lacked what we wanted to get out of it and our defense around the rucks could be improved.”
Flyhalf Dan Carter had a poor night with the boot by his own exceptional standards, converting just four of his eight place kicks and at one stage sending the ball straight into touch.
However, his first penalty allowed him to pass England’s Jonny Wilkinson as the highest scoring player in Test rugby and some of his attacking play was from the top drawer.
The backs outside him ran more creative lines than they had against Fiji and two tries each for wingers Zac Guildford and Cory Jane was a tribute to the performance of the whole back unit.
Henry said Guildford and Jane had been “exceptional” and, with Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ben Smith performing well the previous week and Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava and Hosea Gear coming back from injury, he was anticipating a difficult job for the selectors in picking a back three for the World Cup.
John Afoa suffered a facial fracture against the Springboks, but an upbeat Henry said the team doctor had told him the prop could be fit to face the Australians.
It was left to Afoa’s fellow forward and team captain Richie McCaw to sound the obligatory note of caution about not getting carried away with early season form.
“We’ve still got to make sure we don’t think we’re good enough yet,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure we take another step up next week.”