All Blacks coach Steve Hansen reckons he has a tight five primed to hit their straps at next year’s World Cup.
His big men got the biggest tick for improvement following the 28-27 second Test defeat of England in Dunedin on Saturday to clinch the three-match Test series.
Eclipsed in the first Test in Auckland, the tight brigade responded with a dominant scrum and superior lineout, allied with some ruthless work at the breakdown when New Zealand got on top in the second half.
“Apart from that first 10 to 15 minutes, when we seemed to be a little bit shell-shocked, I think we dominated the game and that all started up front,” Hansen said.
The All Blacks conceded penalties when shunted back by some early drives from the bigger English pack but established control when the speed of the game accelerated.
Prop Tony Woodcock, at 33 and with 109 caps, is a veteran but the rest of the tight five is relatively youthful, leaving Hansen confident they are still short of their peak.
Hooker Dane Coles (27) and prop Owen Franks (26) are still young by front row standards but it is the potential of locks Sam Whitelock (25) and Brodie Retallick (23) which has Hansen most excited.
“Brodie Retallick, as he always does, emptied the tank and Sam was excellent in the air.
“They could be the two best locks in the world at some stage.”
Veteran hooker Keven Mealamu, 35, now second in the pecking order behind Coles, says the 17-cap rake had served his apprenticeship and could be regarded as an established Test performer.
“That was a huge Test for Dane and I thought he passed with flying colours.
“It’s a young forward pack but a few of them have been around for a little while now. I think we’re in really good hands.”
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw wants the same intensity up front in the third Test in Hamilton on Saturday.
He said it was obvious that England were puffing when denied possession for extended periods late in the first half.
Even though New Zealand trailed 10-6 at halftime, McCaw believed they had the tourists’ measure, a dominance borne out by England’s final missed tackle count of 32.
“It’s like any team who has to tackle a lot, you start to go down on your haunches and gasp for air.
“We had to come out in the second half and capitalise on that.”