Why Steve Hansen and All Blacks are back on top where it counts

Author
Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald,
Section
Rugby,
Publish Date
Sunday, 18 August 2019, 3:21PM
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen happy with result of the Bledisloe Cup rugby test. Photo / Mark Mitchell
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen happy with result of the Bledisloe Cup rugby test. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There was an all-pervading sense of satisfaction at the All Blacks' inner-city Auckland hotel this morning after what happened the night before at Eden Park – a sense of questions answered in the most forthright manner.

The smiles were back on the faces of the players, some of whom were still wearing towels from a massage session, and possibly one or two sore heads too, for it's not every weekend you retain the Bledisloe Cup with a near-record 36-0 victory over the Wallabies in a test which began as a metaphorical arm-wrestle and finished with the humiliated visitors under the table.

Head coach Steve Hansen was more satisfied than most as he reflected on the test – his 100th in charge of the All Blacks – and considered his team's next challenge against Tonga in Hamilton in a fortnight and a World Cup towards which he felt his men had taken a "massive" step with their most complete performance of the year after their worst in Perth a week earlier.

Starting a week before the All Blacks' scratchy win over the Pumas on July 21 and continuing with the draw to South Africa and walloping in Western Australia, each passing day has been significant for Hansen and his men as the World Cup approaches and another big one is looming: the announcement of his 31-player squad for Japan a week on Wednesday.

Does Saturday's performance make his selection job harder? "In some ways it makes it easier because some people really put their hands up last night," Hansen said. "Where we had question marks, you no longer have question marks. But in other ways, it makes it a bit tougher, too."

"It always is," he said of it being a tough job. "When you name a team someone misses out. It's the end of their dream and this is a pretty big one – going to the World Cup."

As he said: "There's a bit of pressure on the other guys now to front up."

He and his players could feel the doubt of the nation during the week; that they could then fully express themselves in scoring five tries to nil despite the high stakes and the yellow card to Dane Coles says much for their mental resolve as much as their talent.

All of what have been described as gambles paid off: the dropping of Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith in favour of George Bridge and Sevu Reece, starting Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett together, the loose forward trio – Hansen was vindicated on all fronts after his men brought a level of attitude missing so far this year.

"Everyone externally was starting to get a bit shaky, starting to question whether the coaches still had it, the players still had it," Hansen said. "The external group of our nation can now breathe slightly easier."

But he added: "The day New Zealand rugby doesn't have an external scrutiny like it does [is the day] the game is not where it was."

He did raise an eyebrow at Wales overtaking New Zealand as World Rugby's top-ranked team for the first time in 2009, saying: "How do you work that out? I've never understood their system. You win a game and you lose the top ranking. I guess when you sit back it's something that's going to happen anyway because the top-ranked sides are playing each other in the Northern Hemisphere and you get more points if you beat the top sides. We just need to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to go to the World Cup and win that so we're not too worried."

It means Warren Gatland's Wales go to Japan as the No 1 team, and Hansen won't necessarily be unhappy if that adds to the pressure on his Kiwi rival.

And, as he reflected on his final Bledisloe Cup match, an Australian reporter asked if things were friendlier between the two camps now after the All Blacks invited the Wallabies into their Eden Park changing room.

"You're the only guys we keep making it not friendly," was Hansen's response. "We're all big boys, we know there's always going to be some banter. You've got the best nation sledging in the world, Australia. Every now and then someone sledges back and you think that makes a war. It doesn't, it's just good banter."

After a big week, Hansen and the All Blacks are back on top where it counts.