AUCKLAND, New Zealand - The world champion All Blacks admitted Thursday to being uncomfortable with their patchy performances so far this year, but rejected talk of panic in the ranks.
Going into their Rugby Championship Test against arch-rivals South Africa in Auckland on Saturday, New Zealand have played seven Tests in 2017 with five wins, one loss and one draw.
Coach Steve Hansen admitted that the scrambling nature of some of those victories had caused public disquiet in rugby-obsessed New Zealand.
"If we'd won that (British and Irish Lions) series rather than drawn it probably people wouldn't be so down in the mouth," he said. "It would appear this is a year we're finding out about ourselves."
The last time the All Blacks had a misfiring season was in the lead-up to their successful World Cup defence two years ago which was explained then as fine-tuning strategies.
But Hansen said the situation was different this time as the All Blacks grappled with shifts in defensive patterns, season-ending injuries to Owen Franks, Joe Moody and Jordie Barrett, a suspected long-term injury to Israel Dagg and Ben Smith's sabbatical break from the game.
In the team named to play South Africa, the back three of Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Rieko Ioane have only 20 Tests between them while Kane Hames and Nepo Lualala have a combined eight Tests.
"At the World Cup we had a team that was primed ... this group is in the infancy of that at this stage," Hansen said. "It's another two-and-a-half years before we get to that point and if we keep growing and learning as I would like us to then we'll be a far stronger side than we are at the moment.
"Getting injuries makes you uncomfortable, drawing a Test series makes the All Blacks uncomfortable because it feels like we lost it," he added.
"Not playing for 80 minutes makes you feel uncomfortable, making errors that normally we wouldn't make but because of being put under pressure, because of good defensive systems makes you uncomfortable.
"So there's plenty of uncomfortableness. We've just got to overcome it."
Hansen said players brought into the squad this year may lack international experience but "we just can't panic".
"We've got to back them and believe in them."