LONDON • The All Blacks' image as sure-fire Rugby World Cup winners is starting to fade, as not only critics but also fans begin to question coach Steve Hansen's masterplan.
Even Kieran Read, the stand-in captain for Friday's 47-9 win over Tonga, admitted there were problems to be addressed.
However, Hansen put on a bold front after the game, declaring himself "very happy" with the way things are going.
"What's happening now is irrelevant. What happens next week will be, and it's about maintaining performances from here on in and winning," he said after Tonga finally folded at St James' Park.
"We had a plan and we stuck to that plan, now we have to wait to see if it works."
In a relatively easy pool, the All Blacks maintained their record of never losing a game before the quarter-finals in all eight World Cups, and Hansen said they were building towards the sudden-death phase of the tournament.
But in all four pool matches in this tournament, they have not once put in the full 80-minute performance that Hansen said is necessary in the play-offs.
For the last half hour against Tonga, they looked thoroughly in command with precision finishing that netted five tries.
But for the first 50 minutes, they struggled.
Read dropped the ball the first three times he tried to catch it, Waisake Naholo dropped the ball with an open line ahead of him and the scrum creaked, groaned and conceded four penalties against a feisty Tongan pack.
"What has happened to our game?" tweeted Mark Stafford, reflecting the thoughts of many other All Blacks supporters.
Other tweets included: "The All Blacks are going to have to improve if they are to win this World Cup" and "Are the ABs holding everything back or are they really not that good in this comp?"
Read acknowledged that Tonga had exposed shortcomings in the All Blacks' forwards.
"They really took us on up front. I was pleased the way we just stuck at it. They put some pressure on our scrum but we held our line there," he said. "Certainly, our work up front needs to probably improve."
As Tonga got tired, the All Blacks ran away with the game over the final 30 minutes when they scored four of their seven tries.
On top of Milner-Skudder's spectacular scores, Ben Smith, Tony Woodcock, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Cane and Ma'a Nonu - in his 100th Test - all crossed the line.
Dan Carter landed six of seven conversions.
The All Blacks now play the losers of today's match between Ireland and France in a quarter-final at Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Both have given the All Blacks headaches in the past. Against Ireland in Dublin a year ago, New Zealand just scraped home.
France have a history of upsetting the All Blacks' apple cart at the World Cups.
New Zealand have eight days to put things right, and shake off Friday's bumps and bruises, although that probably will not be long enough for veteran prop Woodcock, who scored the All Blacks' sole try when they beat France 8-7 in the 2011 World Cup final.
After saying that more would be known about the prop's torn hamstring by today, Hansen added: "It doesn't look as though he'll be okay.
"If this is the end of his tournament, it is a poor way for a great All Black to finish."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN