New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has offered a sunny assessment of where his squad stands less than a year out from a Rugby World Cup in Japan, where the All Blacks will be trying to win the Webb Ellis Trophy for the third straight time.
Hansen has hailed top-ranked New Zealand’s recent northern hemisphere tour as a great success, despite an historic loss to No. 2-ranked Ireland in Dublin — the All Blacks’ first loss in Ireland in 113 years.
His optimistic view of the All Blacks’ status as the World Cup rapidly approaches contrasts with the growing anxiety of some fans who see the loss to Ireland as evidence that the team is in decline, or at least that the rest of the world is catching up.
The general view of All Blacks fans, expressed widely on social media, is that 2018, in which New Zealand won 12 tests and lost two was not a great one. The losses to Ireland and South Africa were low points but there was a wider feeling throughout the year that the team, which has been ranked No. 1 in the world for nine years, has fallen away from the high standards it achieved early under Hansen’s coaching.
The brilliant attacking play which has been the team’s hallmark has been evident only in sporadic moments this season.
No-one doubts New Zealand has superbly skillful players and are still capable of constructing marvelous tries. That lock Brodie Retallick won World Rugby’s Try of the Year award just this week for a try in which he sold a dummy and bamboozled the Wallabies backline shows the breadth of skill that exists within the team.
But the recent error rate and the lapses of tactical judgement have sown unease, even among the All Blacks’ most loyal fans. Ireland’s ability to use smothering defense to shut down the All Blacks’ attacking game, holding them tryless for the first time in four years, has grown much deeper concern.
Ireland followed a model established by the British and Irish Lions during their drawn series in New Zealand last year. The Lions, under Wales coach Warren Gatland, showed that when opponents control the pace of the game and successfully employ a rush defense the All Blacks can lose composure.
Hansen and his fellow coaches have been working on measures to get around those defenses. The head coach has repeatedly stated that one of the reasons the team’s performances have been “scrappy” this season is that they are trying to incorporate new elements into their game.
It’s for that reason that Hansen was happy with the outcome of the northern tour, highlighted by a win over England. Hansen said the All Blacks made progress in developing those new elements of their game which include the two-playmaker style involving flyhalf Beauden Barrett and fullback Damian McKenzie.
He said the loss to Ireland will be a critical lesson for New Zealand ahead of the World Cup, helping it adapt its style to the new approach of its opponents.
“It will also be an annoying itch that we won’t get to scratch until we play them and I know that will make us a little hungrier,” Hansen said. “It’s always good when you go to the table hungry. You won’t win the World Cup unless you’re hungry, and you can deal with the pressure of it.”
Hansen said the squad has developed its depth in 2018, with flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and center Jack Goodhue among the most notable discoveries.
“We’ve found some young players who have really challenged some of the senior players,” Hansen said. “Now we will go back and really solidify our thinking and our selections and where we will go to next.”
However, there has been concern over the form of some senior players, especially captain Kieran Read. Read missed the first half of the season as he recovered from major back surgery. He hasn’t been as impactful on attack in recent matches, leading some to question whether his career is nearing an end.
Star midfielder Sonny Bill Williams is another whose selection for the World Cup is no longer a certainty.
Read shares Hansen’s view that the All Blacks are in a good place as the World Cup nears.
“I think every team we play plays their best game of the year against us and that’s something to learn from,” he said. “It comes from experience and we’ve got guys that are relatively new to the stage and have learnt a lot from those situations.
“I think we’re in a pretty good spot right now. We’ve got a squad which is capable of a lot.” Steve McMorran, Wellington, AP