Wellington: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will breathe a huge sigh of relief that his final preparations for the Rugby World Cup got off to a winning start, but he would also know there was still plenty of room for improvement over the next two months.
An under-strength All Blacks side, lacking discipline, held on to deny Argentina their first victory over the world champions, with a 20-16 victory in their Rugby Championship clash in Buenos Aires on Saturday.
The All Blacks defence stood out in the second half, while Hansen was also pleased with the efforts of some of the newer members of the team.
“We found a lot of things [out] and most of them were pretty positive and that was pleasing,” Hansen said of a squad that included five debutants and seven others with 10 or less caps.
“We knew we’d be rusty and we were but the young guys we wanted to look at got an opportunity to play in a place like this, which is difficult to play at any time, and most of them put their hands up.”
The side were shorn of several hundred caps of test experience with players from the Canterbury Crusaders, including regular captain Kieran Read and lock Sam Whitelock, being rested ahead of Saturday’s clash against the Springboks in Wellington.
Experienced players like Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and captain Sam Cane showed leadership in the final stages of the game, which Hansen felt would only serve the team well in Japan later this year.
“You take all the leadership out from that Crusaders group ... to have this group go through what they went through, it’s like winning the Lotto,” Hansen added.
The 60-year-old Hansen, who is leaving the job after the Rugby World Cup, however, was aware there were elements that would need to be worked on ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The Pumas’ kicking game, a tactic likely to be also utilised by the Springboks, Ireland and England at the global showpiece, put the All Blacks under immense pressure.
Even the normally assured fullback, Ben Smith, had trouble attacking the ball in the air and was beaten to a kick by Emiliano Boffelli close to the line that led to the Pumas’ only try.
The All Blacks also failed to finish off several line breaks, a rarity in international rugby in the modern age with fast defensive patterns, by trying to force a pass or turning the ball over.
“You can’t just snap your fingers and get the end result just like that,” Hansen said.
“At times our accuracy and combinations weren’t quite there [and] it takes time and timing together.
“But we will get better. We’re not going to panic.”
World Cup winner Frans Steyn admits he was a bag of nerves before his return to the South Africa side in their 35-17 Rugby Championship victory over Australia on Saturday as he targets a late push for a place in the Springboks’ World Cup squad, reports from Johannesburg add.
Steyn lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in France 12 years ago, but has 56 caps in 13 years, often in and out of the side at the whim of coaches and sometimes himself. It was his first appearance since June 2017.
But his experience and versatility is attractive to current coach Rassie Erasmus, who selected Steyn last year, only for the Montpellier player to withdraw from the squad with injury.
“I was nervous,” Steyn said after a 30-minute appearance off the bench at Ellis Park. “My wife was pacing up and down at the hotel before we left for the game. Watching her made me nervous.
“When we started to warm up at Ellis Park, I calmed down a little bit.”
Steyn can play flyhalf, fullback and inside centre, but believes the latter position is his best as he looks forward to making up for past disappointments in a career that has perhaps not seen him fulfil his rich potential.
“I’ve been around and I’ve had my bad years,” Steyn said. “Careers have ups and downs. It’s one of those things. Mine has gone up and down, as everybody in this room knows.
“I’m actually happy that I didn’t start against Australia, because I’ve been in the squad for just two weeks and I’m still trying to get used to all the structures.
South Afria 35 Australia 17
Argentina 16 New Zealand 20