Steve Hansen on Joe Schmidt: ‘I might be able to set him up’
All Blacks coach says Ireland bring the best out of his side but this meeting is do or die
Steve Hansen looks on during an All Blacks training session in Urayasu - they meet Ireland on Saturday. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty
Steve Hansen enters the room on the 25th floor of the Royal Park hotel in Shinodome. No warm-up act, none of the usual platitudes, just straight down to business.
Come Saturday it will be a full month since the All Blacks last truly serious test, a stunning 23-13 victory over South Africa in Yokohama, so everyone is getting a little cranky.
Hansen is not going to offer up the easy line on Ireland. It will need to be earned. Interestingly, he never mentions the opposition by name.
“They are a quality side, they’ve been number one this year, and the last three results are loss, win, loss so there won’t be any complacency in our camp,” said the outgoing New Zealand head coach. It is pretty exciting. We are right where we want to be.”
NZ television wonders aloud how come Ireland play “your team so tough?”
“It has taken them a long time to get there - they obviously enjoyed [winning] - so they want to keep doing it.”
When the 60-year-old former police constable is pressed for more detail, he offers the same response we hear from Serena Williams at Wimbledon every year; in the face of greatness true professionals perform far above themselves.
“There is a lot of respect from both sides. We played them in November and it was a titanic struggle but on the day they were the better side. Most teams we play get up 10 per cent better than they normally do. They are no different.
“Big difference here is it is a do or die game for both teams.”
The difference between Joe Schmidt’s time as Ireland coach and Hansen’s 15-year association with the All Blacks can be whittled down to perspectives. Schmidt’s Irish coaching tenure will forever be shaped around five enormous encounters with his native land, whereas Hansen’s New Zealand will only be defined by meetings with Ireland if they lose Saturday’s quarter-final in Tokyo stadium.
Coaching any generation of All Blacks since 1987 is primarily about the winning and losing of World Cups. Yet, despite everything that has happened since Aaron Cruden re-took and planted the winning conversion at the Aviva stadium in 2013, Kiwi’s still cannot countenance Ireland becoming the dominant force in this rivalry.
“I don’t know if they have defined us as a team,” Hansen replied when that 2013 nail-biting victory, the historic Chicago game in 2016, the Dublin revenge a fortnight later and last November’s defeat are mentioned as momentous days in Irish rugby history.
“Every Test match is an opportunity to express yourself. This is why it is called a Test match - test you both physically and mentally.”
The Schmidt versus Hansen record is played four, with two wins apiece.
Considering the almighty and highly controversial response to losing at Soldier Field in 2016, when New Zealand prevailed 21-9 in Dublin two weeks later, has Schmidt’s Ireland brought the best from Hansen’s All Blacks?
“I think they have brought out the best in us for a long, long time.We enjoy playing them and that hasn’t changed because they have beaten us a few times.
“A lot of people are getting caught up in the past. It’s about what is happening on Saturday that is going to matter. Anything that has happened in the past is irrelevant.”
Every one of the gathered reporters is fishing for the line. Jacob Stockdale’s spectacular try delivers. The origin of the switch move is noted as an Otago Highlanders attacking ploy that Schmidt stole to torture Kieran Read’s team last year.
Hansen chomps down on the bait.
“We know that Joe does a lot of study. That can be a strength and a weakness. I might be able to set him up.”
This battle of wits - Kiwi versus Kiwi on the world stage - remains an enthralling prospect. Schmidt has branded New Zealand and South Africa “heavyweights” with Ireland being “light heavyweight at best.”
Does Hansen enjoy pitting his wits against Joe?
“Yeah, but no more than anyone else. We concentrate on ourselves.”
Spoken like an undisputed world champion.
Ireland’s desire to hoard possession is mentioned, and it opens up the road to how the game will evolve.
“Aw they are pretty set in their play, like we are, they play to their strengths. Conor Murray does a lot of kicking, they use Sexton to drive them around the park and their big forwards to carry. Why would they want to change what’s been very successful for them?”
Sexton’s importance is laid at his feet. The “computers of the game” as he described outhalves a few moons ago.
“Aw I think they are more than a one man team. But your 10 is pretty important.”
Hansen in unimpressed when the passing of the Barrett brothers grandfather gets aired in such a public forum.
“They are a tight knit family. We pass on our condolences to them and our sympathies, at the same time we will be supporting the three boys that are here. It’s really not the place to be talking about it, I don’t think. It is a private matter. We just got to let them get on with it.”
The press conference had already become tetchy when he is asked, ‘How do you create an environment to handle the finiteness of the situation?’
“You mean the fact you lose you go home?”
The fact your All Black career is over if you lose?
“Well I’m not worrying about my All Black career. I’m more concerned we earn the right to come back on Monday. What will be will be.”
Hansen speaks better than most, but when his prophetic words from last November - about Ireland will struggle with being on top of the mountain - are relayed to him, he feigns coyness.
“When did I say that?”
Last November in Dublin (he says it whenever another country beats New Zealand).
“Well, you probably seen them more often than me cause you live there so how do you think they are going?”
“Well, they are in the quarter-finals so they are not going too bad. They are the same as the other seven teams. What they have done prior to getting here doesn’t matter a hoot. It’s what happens on Saturday. That’s the exciting part about it, you control your own destiny.”