All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s brazen Rugby World Cup plan put to test in Japan


Steve Hansen should have known a super typhoon would disrupt preparations during his fifth, and probably final, World Cup.

While he hasn’t had to previously deal with the monsoon-like rain and wild winds generated by a monster called Hagibis, All Blacks coach Hansen has been around long enough to accept it’s unwise to not expect something random to unfold at these tournaments.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had attended five World Cups, with Wales and New Zealand.

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All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had attended five World Cups, with Wales and New Zealand.

During the tournament in Japan coaches have had to find ways to alter their players’ tackling techniques after World Rugby, in their wisdom, announced referees must cane anyone who tackles a falling player above the shoulders.

No-one disagrees with World Rugby’s decision to protect players but the late introduction of the hard-line policy hasn’t been popular.

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The All Blacks know they have to adapt or risk losing a sudden-death game because of a yellow or red card.

Past experiences have given them some invaluable insights.

Steve Hansen has taken a few gambles to get to this point at the World Cup in Japan.

HANNAH PETERS/GETTY

Steve Hansen has taken a few gambles to get to this point at the World Cup in Japan.

Think back to 2011 when former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw secretly played with a broken foot for much of the tournament, or four years earlier when a callow young English referee called Wayne Barnes froze in their quarterfinal against France.

Hansen, 60, witnessed those events as Graham Henry’s assistant. In 2003 he was head coach of Wales, who didn’t get past England in their quarterfinal in Brisbane.

Now Hansen’s rushing towards the end of his international coaching career, having spent eight years as head coach.

The master plan looks like this: spend another 240 minutes in an All Blacks blazer, capping off the final minutes by watching captain Kieran Read lift the Webb Ellis Cup after the final.

Then it’s off back home to wind down his days with New Zealand Rugby and then, according to reports, join the Toyota club in Japan as a coaching director.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Hansen should have been in Toyota this weekend, to the venue where the All Blacks were to meet Italy in their final pool game. Hagibis put paid to that.

The game was cancelled, much to the chagrin of the Italians, World Rugby having decided it was too dangerous to stage the fixture.

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Kieran Read says the All Blacks are still ready to go, despite the cancellation of their match with Italy.

Instead the All Blacks have remained in Tokyo to prepare for the quarterfinal against Ireland, Scotland or Japan next weekend.

The weight of expectation remains as heavy on the Hansen and his All Blacks as when they entered the 2011 event as the challengers.

As back-to-back champions they began the tournament as hot favourites, and their victories over South Africa, Canada and Namibia in pool play suggest they have got momentum.

As for the pressure, Hansen can’t see the point in hiding from it.

“It has always been there. We have been expected to win every game we play, and not only win it and win it really well,” Hansen said.

“We have to acknowledge it to ourselves, first and foremost. Then once you do that you have to say to yourselves ‘what are you going to do about it?”‘ 

Hansen’s willingness to be innovative, but to not be hamstrung by caution, has given the squad impetus leading to this World Cup.

His decision to introduce the “apprentice” scheme, which involves asking promising players to join the All Blacks either in camp or on tour, has had positive spin-offs.

Loose forward Ardie Savea was taken on the 2013 northern tour as a non-playing member of the apprentice scheme. He wasn’t wanted for the 2015 tournament in Britain, but is now arguably the in-form player of the All Blacks’ forward pack.

Liam Coltman was another slow burner.

He was given an insight to how the squad operated during the domestic series six years ago and won the third hooker’s spot behind the established Dane Coles and Codie Taylor for the trip to Japan.

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All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock says everyone is frustrated the All Blacks v Italy game was cancelled.

Nathan Harris and Rhys Marshall also made brief appearances as apprentices in 2013, with the former missing out to Coltman when the 31-man squad for this World Cup was named.

Asafo Aumua was another hooker who joined the apprentice scheme in 2017, and although named in the All Blacks’ wider squad earlier this year he was released back to Wellington.

Utility back Jordie Barrett travelled on the 2016 northern tour under the same system, made his test debut the following year and is considered an asset as a utility back.

Last season wasn’t a golden one for the All Blacks.

They lost to the Springboks in Wellington, and were fortunate to beat England in London after referee Jerome Garces and television match official Marius Jonker disallowed Sam Underhill’s late try having deemed Courtney Lawes was offside when he charged TJ Perenara’s clearing kick down.

Then came the 16-9 defeat to Ireland in Dublin in the penultimate game on tour.

Hansen urged the New Zealand public to be patient, saying he was in the process of bedding in a new game plan ahead of the World Cup and that it was going to take time.

Few thought he would propose such radical changes.

The injury to Damian McKenzie forced a re-think around the fullback’s job, but rather than give the reliable Ben Smith a run there Hansen switched Beauden Barrett to the back field to allow Richie Mo’unga to start at No 10.

The unavailability of Liam Squire provided the opportunity to put openside flanker Savea in the unfamiliar No 6 jersey, and to be used as an attacking No 8 off scrums.

And the addition of a third No 7, Matt Todd, gave the All Blacks more speed off the bench to relieve either Sam Cane or Savea in the second half of games.

Enthusiasm and form on the wings meant the established Rieko Ioane and Smith were on the outer, replaced by Crusaders duo Sevu Reece and George Bridge.

The team for the quarterfinal isn’t likely to be named until Thursday, but expect Reece, Bridge and Savea to be in the starting team.

Hansen’s revolutionary plans are about to be put to the test at Tokyo Stadium.

The All Blacks’ form and ability to cope with the white-hot pressure of play-off games during previous tournaments means they remain at short odds to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, and that’s just fine with him.

“You are better off being the favourite than you are the underdog,” Hansen says.

“If we came here and everyone said ‘they have no show of winning it’, it’s a bit tough isn’t it?

“If you come here and you have got a show, I think that’s way better. I would rather be a favourite as a racehorse, than an outsider. Favourites normally win more often than they lose.”

He adds that doesn’t mean the All Blacks have the right to a title three-peat.

“But I think that’s a better position to be in, than to be seen as someone who can’t win.”

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Publish date : 2019-10-12 16:00:00

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