The All Blacks are adamant they have plenty of improvement left in them as they look to finish phase one of their test season in style in Hamilton on Saturday night.
After two fairly emphatic performances - 66-28 over the numerically challenged Irish and 42-9 over an outgunned Welsh outfit - it remains to be seen whether they have another level of improvement in them.
And injury could yet force a few unscheduled changes, with Anthony Boric (cheek fracture) and Israel Dagg (head knock) all but ruled out this week, Conrad Smith (eye injury) doubtful, Dan Carter (calf strain) under a cloud, Joe Rokocoko feeling a painful knee and Mils Muliaina still struggling enough with his own calf problems to suggest he could miss the entire June schedule.
But such is their depth and the quality of some of the men waiting in the wings, it still looks like Graham Henry will be able to send out a strong lineup to face the shellshocked Welsh who faded badly after a strong first half in Dunedin.The classy Cory Jane is a ready-made replacement at fullback, with Hawke's Bay youngster Zac Guildford champing at the bit to see some action on the wing. That's a back three that suffers nothing in comparison to what's been sent out through the first two tests.Canterbury youngster Sam Whitelock also looks worthy of a first test start in the second row after two promising efforts off the bench, with a fit-again Tom Donnelly set to slot in on the bench to provide the experience, if needed.
And in midfield Richard Kahui looks well worthy of a chance, either for Smith or Benson Stanley, after his fabulous 40 minutes off the bench at the Brook. It's hard to see how the coaches wouldn't want another look at this talented performer, especially back on his home track.But the bar has very much been set after Carisbrook - an impressive display led very much by the team's best two players, Carter and skipper Richie McCaw who, with his 39th victory in just 45 tests as captain, has equalled the mark set by Sean Fitzpatrick.There was general consensus in the All Black camp that the Welsh had provided a sterner test than the ill-disciplined Irish were able to in New Plymouth, even if it took a while for the New Zealanders to find their A game.
"We were disappointing as a team in that first half," said halfback Jimmy Cowan who laid on the opening try of the night with a quick tap and go. "We were quite lethargic as a group and weren't chasing those kicks as hard as we should have been. We got a fair telling off at halftime by the coaches."It was about taking a look at what's on your left chest, playing for the jersey and trying to send that crowd off on a good note. I think we went out in that second half and played with a different attitude, started to chase kicks, played with some physicality and as result scored some good tries."
Henry was amused that word of his halftime tuneup had rapidly spread after the game.
"Oh, there are no secrets in the camp," he said. "We just talked a bit of reality. We didn't play particularly well in the first half. I thought we were a bit off the pace but the guys played a lot better in the second."
Henry liked a couple of things in particular from what he agreed was a generally improved effort on New Plymouth.The tryless aspect of the Welsh contribution impressed him. "The guys defended well and that was pleasing because it was a big step up from the week before. We scored tries the week before from defence and we scored more tries from defence [in Dunedin]."
And the long-range tries that his team is starting to produce was also promising, he felt. "The rules give you the opportunity to keep the ball at the first breakdown after counter-attacking... it makes for a much better game, you can take a few risks which opens up the game and that's why you get those long-range tries."But the big question was is there more to come? Can the All Blacks sustain this most promising of buildups to the Tri-Nations?
"I hope we can improve," said Henry. "We certainly need to improve on the first-half performance. If we can put two halves together I'll be happy. We've just got to be aware, to build better as team and as individuals to start the game. We started well against the Irish, didn't start so well the next week... the South Africans are very good at starting the game well, and that's a great challenge for this team."
Carter, whose two-try, 27-point haul demonstrated he was back to his very best, reckoned Wales showed enough in that first 40 minutes to suggest they are capable of bouncing back.
"We have to back up and maybe play even better this week," said the All Black No 10. "They'll be fired up for their last game of the year and will want to put in a big performance. We'll look at the game and areas we can improve."Added Henry: "They've got a lot of pride as a rugby nation, and they'll be hurting. When the Welsh dragon is hurt it usually breathes a bit of fire. I'd say they'll be right up there."
The All Blacks may be bubbling along nicely, but it sounds like they're not looking to rest on any laurels.Henry will announce his lineup for the Hamilton test on Tuesday afternoon after assessing his injured bods in the first main training hitout of the week in Hamilton.