Backline star Ben Smith says the new-look All Blacks will be learning on the run in their Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup 2016 opener against the Wallabies on Saturday.
Six of New Zealand’s seven most capped players, including flanker Richie McCaw and five-eight Dan Carter, retired following New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup win.
The All Blacks will be challenged in the next couple of months by the other three World Cup semi-finalists, having made a successful start to their rejuvenation process with a 3-0 home Test series sweep of Wales in June.
“We managed to perform better as a team and learn as we went through that series (against Wales),” Smith said in Sydney on Monday.
“I think it will be similar going into this series, we’re going to have to learn as we go.”
Smith, who wasn’t sure if he will play at fullback or on the wing on Saturday, acknowledged the time had arrived for other players to take centre stage now Carter, McCaw and co had exited Test rugby.
“The likes of Richie and Dan they’ve had their time in the black jersey, but now it’s time for someone else to come in and assert themselves on the team,” Smith said.
He stressed attitude would be the big key against an Australian side desperate to regain the Bledisloe Cup, which has resided in New Zealand’s trophy cabinet for 13 years.
Smith anticipated the return of the Wallabies’ overseas-based backline veterans – Matt Giteau, Will Genia, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell – would fuel Australia’s fire, having all missed the recent 3-0 home series loss to England.
“They are a big part of the Australian team and they’ve shown that coming back into the Australian team that they are ready to go and obviously pretty hungry,” Smith said.
“For us, we’re going to have to match that and make sure our attitude is right going into this week.”
While the latest generation of All Blacks haven’t experienced the sting of a Bledisloe Cup series loss, they have been told what it feels like by those who do know.
“I’ve played with a number of guys before that have lost and had a few conversations around that,” lock Sam Whitelock said.
“It’s always very interesting hearing their thoughts and feelings around it.
“Some of them were just around what the preparation throughout the week was like, that’s critical.”
Smith said New Zealand would have to shut down space around Wallabies game breaker Israel Folau, irrespective of whether he stayed at fullback or was shifted to his Super Rugby position of outside centre.
“We’re going to have to make sure that wherever he plays that we’re limiting his chances, but good players like that always influence a game,” Smith said.