“We want to be a triple-threat team” - Foster
'Finding the balance' has been a phrase used often by Ian Foster during his tenure as All Blacks coach, and the goal in sight for his side was clearer to see during Saturday's 35-20 Lipovitan-D Rugby Championship win over South Africa at Mt Smart Stadium.
Building on the opener against Argentina with another fast start out of the blocks, the All Blacks dominated the first quarter to set the foundation for their success.
"We've always been a team that wants to play, but you've got to get your big rocks right. We've set ourselves some clear objectives about some of the big rocks in our game we want to get right, and we're getting them right at the moment. We've got a big smile on our faces, but we also know it's early, and we're just trying to get that balance.
"It's taken us a while the last couple of years to adjust to the physicality, particularly of the forward play, that's come from the north and having the variety of opposition to test you in the different way teams play."
Some frustrations with losses suffered have been part of the process, but based on what has been produced in their opening two Tests of 2023, they have made progress with only Australia in their way of claiming the Rugby Championship and retaining the Bledisloe Cup.
Then it is about finding the mindset to cope with Rugby World Cup pressures against northern hemisphere sides.
"We've gathered a lot of information. Some of it has been painful, but we're learning. Now we're starting to see a non-negotiable level through our set piece, through the physical side of the game, and that's enabling us to win some collisions, which enables you to play on top of people.
"In some ways, it's a simple game.
"We want to be a triple-threat team. It's not about going in with a plan to do it – it's looking for it and, if it's on, to pull the trigger.
"We're trying to kick for space. It worked well. A couple of the kicks weren't as good as they needed to be – one went five metres backwards – but the decision was outstanding, and it still created the opportunities we were looking for."
While the Rugby World Cup dominates the wish list for all teams in 2023, the All Blacks benefit from the Rugby Championship to add focus to their preparations and the Bledisloe Cup. Both could be secured in the final game of the Championship in Melbourne on Saturday week against Australia.
"This year we felt this group needed to get together and get energy. The only way to do that is to go out with a goal of trying to win. Winning this Championship is important to us because it's the first step of the year but it also meant we've had an edge to our preparation. We haven't had an excuse to say 'it doesn't really matter' and that's been positive for us."
Despite their two Rugby Championship losses under Eddie Jones, Australia would be a challenge for the All Blacks.
Foster said, "History tells us you can never write them off. They've got the ability to turn up and bite us. In my experience, they've regularly done that. They haven't got the results they want. A win over us at the MCG would solve a lot of their issues."
Foster said it came down to being in the suitable head space for the All Blacks to play as they most wanted and preferred.
"Getting the desire to play, to express yourself and to have that attack focus. That has been the big shift and that has encouraged us to release the ball a little more and then, of course, it is having the skill set to do it."
Part of that was coping when teams had their moments in the sun, as South Africa did when fighting back during the middle stages of the second half.
"Rather than losing our way, we found a way back. That was really pleasing."
"We've got a lot of growth still to do, and we are learning, 'let's just nail each week and not think too much about anything else. That's been a good formula.
"The World Cup is a series of one-off games, and in some ways this win is not relevant. But where it is relevant is the confidence you get out of building the blocks in your game, and we'll take that."