Steve Hansen taking in all in his stride ahead of England showdown
All Blacks coach remains quiet on whether he will engage in any mind games with Eddie Jones
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen shakes hands with Ireland captain Rory Best after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images
Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika looked like tortured souls and on at least three occasions Eddie Jones has shown signs of emotion in front of the English media for the first time. Meantime, as ever, Steve Hansen cuts the most relaxed head coach here.
That’s his nature. He is very at ease in front of the cameras and the media, or in his demeanour with referees, opposing coaches and all and sundry, both before and after matches.
It helps of course when you’ve been involved in back-to-back World Cup wins and you’ve won 11 matches out of 11 in the last two tournaments. It probably helps too when, deep down, you know you have the best team in the competition.
So it is that in the build-up to his 106th and penultimate match as the All Blacks head coach (they will have either a final or a third-place playoff to contest), Hansen has presided over 92 wins, four draws and nine losses. Not that there isn’t pressure being the coach of the most expectant and demanding rugby nation in the world.
“Of course there is. We feel it every day in our own lives and different things cause us to feel it,” said Hansen, whose side take on Jones’s England on Saturday. “Playing in a semi-final of a Rugby World Cup, there is definitely going to be pressure – on both sides.
“The key thing is how you manage it. You crack that nut and you give yourself the opportunity to play well. If you don’t crack it you know you can go inwardly and get tight and miss the opportunities that are going to be there.”
He bears it well. Hansen talks common sense eloquently, although he’s not averse to some mind games himself in the build-up to a Test match, as Cheika can testify.
“It’s a real thing, but sometimes you’re better not to bother going there and sometimes you are. Eddie will decide whether he wants to go there and I’ve already decided what I want to do. You’ll have to wait and see, I guess. There’s still a couple more days to go. There’s no point is there? He’s a smart man. He knows me and I know him.”
The All Blacks met England four times in 2014, but this is only their second clash since the world champions beat them 16-15 at Twickenham last November.
Accordingly, Hansen said of the rivalry: “I think South Africa is always going to be our biggest rival because of all the history that comes with it and because we play each other so regularly.
“I think we’ve played England once in the last six years so it’s hard to build a rivalry when you don’t play each other. If we could get the Six Nations to come on board for a global season, we’d be able to do that. Once they do that, then they’re starting to think about the game rather than themselves. There’s a headline for you.”
In the 2015 World Cup, the four southern hemisphere sides turned the semi-finals onwards into a mini Rugby Championship, with the Six Nations countries on the outside looking in. This time, both England and Wales have reached the last four, but Hansen sought to put things in perspective.
“Ireland were unlucky,” he continued. “They had a lot of injuries after their last pool game. England were desperately disappointed with how they went and Wales lost a nail-biter,” he said of their quarter-final defeat by South Africa, when the Welsh led until Fourie du Preez’s 75th-minute try.
“I don’t know if that was an anomaly, it’s just a fact. But that’s what made them go away and think about how they play the game and what they want from their rugby. And they’ve come back over the last four years and all those home nations teams have played really good rugby. Two of them [Wales and Ireland] have been the number one team in the world over the last month or so and two of them are now in the final four. So they’re making some great progress.”
These All Blacks could break the mould of all previous winners, in stark contrast to the experienced, well-honed and settled team of four years ago. Based more on form and freshness, the backline against Ireland featured four lightly capped young players from the Crusaders.
“It’s always handy to have a new guy on the block, it’s always handy to have an old guy,” said Hansen. “In 2015 everyone told us we had too many old blokes, so I thought I’d change it so we didn’t have to have that headline every week. Seriously, it’s probably just the way the cards have fallen.”
Pointing to the form of the Crusaders backs, Hansen said: “Experience isn’t always just about how many Test caps you have.”
A clear illustration of this has been the selection of George Bridge ahead of Rieko Ioane for the opening pool game against South Africa and the quarter-final against Ireland. Coming into the World Cup, although Ioane (22) is younger than Bridge (24), he had scored 23 tries in 26 Tests compared to Bridge’s seven tries in just five Tests.
Four of those tries were scored in the eve of tournament 92-7 win over Tonga, in just his second Test start, but their faith in Bridge was rewarded with tries against both the Boks and Ireland.
“Form’s really important. Once you select the team, you’ve got a little bit of wriggle room for guys who are new and for older players. Rieko has been a fabulous player, still is, so he gets a tick,” said Hansen.
“George Bridge who played fabulously well in the Super [Rugby] season, had one game for the All Blacks in Japan the year before, played really well there, so you bring them together and give them opportunities and the guy who plays best gets picked. So he gets the tick ahead of Rieko and it’s a luxury when you can do that because Rieko is a super rugby player.”
Some luxury all right, but simple as.