Cape Town - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen acknowledged South Africa were going to present a much tougher Rugby Championship challenge than they did last year when they meet at Albany on Saturday.
It was obvious, Hansen said, that the Springboks were playing with confidence, enjoying their rugby as a result, and that made them a more formidable opponent.
They had made some significant changes in their coaching personnel and that was evident in the way they were playing. South Africa had always bred good rugby players so it was going to be 'a great Test', he said.
Much of the press conference was taken up looking at the demands of attempting to build a side between Rugby World Cups, especially after losing the core of 800 caps in the wake of the 2015 World Cup success, while also meeting the demands of New Zealanders that the team continue to produce top-flight rugby.
As a result of the loss of props Owen Franks and Joe Moody, wing Israel Dagg and with Ben Smith on sabbatical, there were opportunities for younger players and that contributed to the depth available for the future.
There was something of Murphy's Law applying to the injuries which tended to occur in areas the selectors least wanted but they had come out the other side of those events with surprise packages who had done well, he said, adding that he didn't expect the latest situation to be any different.
Scrum coach Mike Cron was enjoying the challenge of preparing the scrum for the contest.
"It's a challenge for such a great coach and he's one of the best in the world, if not the best at what he does, and challenges like this is forcing him to really go into his box of tricks to make sure that he has got people up to speed quickly," said Hansen.
"He's got a bit of talent to work with too. It's not as if we're bringing in people that can't play.
"We're happy enough that we've got good scrummagers so our set-piece is okay, they're good in the lineout with their lifting. Where you probably miss out a little bit is that experience around the park and being in the right place at the right time because they haven't had the miles under them but it will come.
"We just can't panic, we've got to back them and believe in them and we're doing that."
It had been similar with Franks when he was first in the team. He could scrum and lift but around the field his contribution was minimal.
"But now he's probably one of the best line runners in the game. His running lines are great and his catch and pass is pretty good for a big man, so you can make those improvements but first and foremost you've got to do the set-piece job," added Hansen.
Hansen said he could understand some of the feeling suggesting there was more vulnerability around the side this year.
In 2016 they had hit the ground running with a group of players who were ready to take their chance.
"In 2017 what has changed is that the game has changed subtlely. So we are learning to deal with that. We are also learning…you are always going to have a tough period as a squad at some period in your life. It would appear that this is a year we are having to find out about ourselves," he said.
Part of that process was finding out whether they were preparing bone deep or just scratching the surface. That meant if their preparation wasn't right they could get into trouble on game day.
Hansen said the British & Irish Lions series had involved a quality of defensive play that was probably the best in the world by four countries who had the tools to take on one country and it was probably the fact the series was drawn that was of concern in some quarters.
"But what we got from that series was a whole lot of things that this group has to learn," he said.
Captain Kieran Read might have played 100 Tests, but he was being challenged as a young leader, the leadership group was being challenged along with the young players. When the injuries were thrown into the mix it had been an awkward season, he said.
In spite of all that, the side had only lost one Test, and drawn one, and the players had still managed to extricate themselves from tricky positions against good teams.
"All those things are feeding into the big experience pot that we are drinking from and learning from. So it's not all bad," explained Hansen..
The side in 2015 was at the end of its cycle, but the side in 2017 was at the beginning and if they continued to develop as the management wanted they would be a far, far stronger side than they were at the moment by the time 2019 came around.
"It is difficult to go four years without injuries, it's very difficult to go four years without feeling some discomfort and the key to being successful is feeling comfortable being uncomfortable and we're working our way through that," he said.
Between 2011-15 there had been losses and some tough games but the difference was the experience McCaw and Co. could provide.
"If you look at a Dan Carter vs a Beauden Barrett, Beauden Barrett has played one and a half seasons at fly-half but Dan Carter was coming to the end of his career, and he was injured a lot of that. I could name a lot of people like – Ryan Crotty vs Conrad [Smith], Alby [Anton Lienert-Brown] vs Ma'a [Nonu]. They're just at a different stage so because of that you are seeing different things," said Hansen.
"It doesn't mean to say they're not a good team, it doesn't mean to say they're not going to get better. That's the exciting thing working with this group because they want to get better and yes, it's a bit tough at the moment but give some credit to the opposition."
Because they were playing the All Blacks there was no trouble sides getting up to play them but the All Blacks had to work on that motivation all the time and needed a good work ethic.
"I believe we do have a good work ethic. I believe that we're going in the right direction. I believe that we've got a good plan, you just have to be patient. If you're not happy how we're going just be patient and we'll get there. I promise you," he said.
Hansen confirmed that it was likely Dagg would need some time out of the game due to his knee injury. More information was being sought on the exact nature of the problem and the longer term prognosis.
He explained that Vaea Fifita had not been in the frame for selection for the South Africa Test. The selectors felt Liam Squire had been part of the side for three years and had built up the necessary experience while Fifita was new and needed more time to build up his game to meet the side's needs.