Rugby: Best yet to come for new-look All Blacks eyeing 2019 World Cup defence

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SINGAPORE - For a team expected not only to win but win convincingly, 2017 has been a year that has fallen somewhat short of the usual lofty standards expected of the All Blacks.

The Kiwis split a three-game series against the British and Irish Lions in July (one win, one draw, one loss) and lost to fierce rivals Australia 18-23 in Brisbane last month. They have also eked out a few more close victories than their fans would like over 16 matches this year that have yielded 13 victories, including a 22-17 win in Scotland earlier this month when the All-Blacks staved off a spirited comeback to prevent a loss to the hosts for the first time in 112 years.

But All Blacks half-back T.J. Perenara, in Singapore with team-mates Damian McKenzie and Matt Todd for a training clinic organised by AIG on Wednesday (Nov 29), does not believe that there is cause for worry.

"Everyone is talking about how world rugby is getting better but I'm happy to play any team on any given day," said the 25-year-old at the Float at Marina Bay.

"The people who are saying all (the negative things) are in the media or otherwise not involved in the game and as a team, I think we're only going to get better."

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All Blacks head coach Steven Hansen has opted to blood a new group of players this year as he looks ahead to the 2019 Rugby World Cup when New Zealand will bid to become the first ever country to win the tournament three times in a row.

Perenara, who has been capped 42 times, is one of a handful of players in the 2017 squad left over from New Zealand's Rugby World Cup triumph in 2015, and he acknowledged that the team has gotten a lot younger.

"We're a lot younger now, but also we're just playing a different way. I know it's only been two seasons (since 2015) but the game has become a lot quicker than it was two years ago and as a team we've needed to change, adapt and grow," said the Porirua native, who leads the iconic All Blacks haka war dance before each game.

Leading the wave of new faces is 20-year-old wing Rieko Ioane, who has dazzled with a series of fine performances this year that led to him winning the World Breakthrough Player of the Year award on Sunday.

Against South Africa in last month's Rugby Championship, Ioane intercepted the ball from 80m out and outpaced the entire Springboks defence to score in the 25-24 win, and was the difference-maker again last Saturday against Wales when he scored two tries and created two more to lead the All Blacks to a 33-18 win.

Said Perenara: "For me it's hard to see a ceiling for Rieko, he is that good. I don't think even he knows how good he really is yet but when he does, that's when people should get scared."

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