Steve Hansen (Gallo Images)
Newcastle - Steve Hansen says his All Blacks are holding back on their A game but the players haven't held back on their disappointment in not yet being at their best this Rugby World Cup.
It has left the world champions facing the question of whether they are deliberately keeping their powder dry going into their final pool game against Tonga in Newcastle on Friday.
The All Blacks were never expected to be truly threatened in a relatively lightweight Pool C and accordingly wrapped up wins over Argentina -- the only team to test them in a match they won 26-16 - Namibia and Georgia to qualify for the last eight with a game to spare.
But although never in danger of losing, New Zealand never looked convincing, which according to coach Hansen was to be expected.
Winning by cricket scores doesn't help, he argued, and the All Blacks were testing themselves under various scenarios to prepare for the sudden-death matches ahead.
"Clearly we're keeping some things up our sleeve, which we think is the sensible thing," Hansen said.
"As we get closer to the quarter-final and sudden death we'll bring our whole game."
If Hansen is right, it doesn't get any closer to the quarter-final than the last pool match, which means Tonga are in for a torrid time.
But All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu, a veteran of 128 Tests, said there were still areas, particularly ball retention, that need to be sorted out.
"We've got a few things that we need to work on in our game," Mealamu said on Sunday as the team settled into their base in the north-eastern town of Darlington, a 50-minute drive from Newcastle.
"Execution will be one of those things. Being able to make sure we look after the ball really well. There were a couple of times we turned over the ball and they were easy turnovers."
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith said he was "pretty disappointed in our performance", during New Zealand's last match, a 43-10 win over Georgia.
"But it was a really big game for us and we're just building," Smith explained. "It was a tough watch but an exciting watch too because you could see we are getting close to achieving what we wanted to."
Part of the blueprint for Georgia was for the All Blacks to test themselves under pressure by keeping the ball alive, rather than kick for territory, and challenge the physical Georgians in the collision area.
"We trained it all week. We still wanted to do what we planned on the field and as a player and part of that game I was just a little gutted we couldn't execute it as well," Smith said.
"I think for that first 20 or 30 minutes it was really working and then we weren't able to adjust to the way they changed it."
The All Blacks had their bonus-point fourth try inside the first quarter but crossed the line only three more times in the remaining 60 minutes against an increasingly competitive Georgia.
"There's areas of our game we need to continue to work on and as we get them right we'll cross the chalk a bit more often," said Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who replaced Smith for the final 10 minutes.
"If everyone does their job properly the scoreboard will take care of itself."