All Blacks coach Steve Hansen re­veals that 2018 is go­ing to be the year he looks to build sta­bil­ity and com­bi­na­tions.

AF­TER THE ALL BLACKS DREW THE SE­RIES WITH THE LIONS LAST YEAR, THEY WERE WIDELY PER­CEIVED TO BE VUL­NER­A­BLE. ALL BLACKS COACH STEVE HANSEN WANTS TO CHANGE THAT IN 2018.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - Gre­gor Paul with the story.

Af­ter they drew the se­ries with the Lions last year, the rest of the world be­came ea­ger to claim the All Blacks were sud­denly vul­ner­a­ble. It was a new story about the team that has dom­i­nated the world game for so long, so of course it had plenty of sup­port. At last there was a sign the great em­pire was crum­bling and through­out the year there was ev­i­dence the All Blacks weren’t quite the force they had been.

They had to scram­ble past the Wal­la­bies in Dunedin. For a long pe­riod against Ar­gentina in New Ply­mouth an up­set was on the cards.

In Dur­ban, there was only a point be­tween the two teams and then the Wal­la­bies ex­acted re­venge with a late win in Bris­bane be­fore the All Blacks had to go to the wire to see off Scot­land.

The im­pos­ing, dom­i­nat­ing per­for­mances that de­fined the All Blacks in 2016 were not so reg­u­larly on view in 2017.

The use of the word vul­ner­a­ble didn’t par­tic­u­larly bother All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. He mostly agreed. But while the crit­ics made as­sess­ments about the All Blacks based on their per­for­mance, Hansen made his know­ing they had suf­fered hor­ren­dous in­juries that had forced them to dig deep into their ta­lent pool.

Ex­traor­di­nar­ily deep in fact with 21 play­ers used in 2017 that weren’t re­quired in 2016. It’s easy to for­get now, but the All Blacks were with­out their first choice front-row of Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Owen Franks for much of the sea­son.

Brodie Re­tal­lick missed more than half of the pro­gramme, as did Ben Smith, Is­rael Dagg and Jordie Bar­rett.

There were games when the start­ing XV had fewer than 450 test caps whereas be­tween 2013 and 2015, the All Blacks were fre­quently push­ing close to 1000 col­lec­tive caps in the team that ran on to the field.

In some po­si­tions the All Blacks were down to their third and fourth choices and, for the last five games of the year, they were miss­ing 10 play­ers who started the first test against the Lions – what ev­ery­one would con­sider their strong­est team.

HOPE­FULLY WE WON’T HAVE THE SAME NUM­BER OF IN­JURIES AS WE DID LAST YEAR AND WILL BE ABLE TO BUILD COM­BI­NA­TIONS AND HAVE CON­SIS­TENCY IN SE­LEC­TION.’ STEVE HANSEN

Hansen has been with the All Blacks in one guise or an­other since 2004 and knew bet­ter than any­body that his side were vul­ner­a­ble.

But he also knew bet­ter than most, that vul­ner­a­bil­ity in test foot­ball is no bad thing.

Vul­ner­a­bil­ity is to be em­braced in test foot­ball. All good teams have to be ex­posed to pe­ri­ods when their rep­u­ta­tion is on the line: be acutely con­scious that most ob­servers be­lieve de­feat is a real prospect ev­ery time they play.

It’s faced with that, when teams ei­ther break or de­velop the sort of char­ac­ter that hard­ens them into a for­mi­da­ble force.

Not ev­ery­one will agree, but the All Blacks, con­sid­er­ing their per­son­nel chal­lenges, held to­gether re­mark­ably well and fin­ished 2017 with an in­creased con­fi­dence that they have de­vel­oped, to some de­gree at least, the sort of re­silience they will need to con­tinue to pre­serve their place as the world’s num­ber one side.

As proof of that, look at their record for the sea­son. They won 11, lost two and drew one, so while they may have been branded vul­ner­a­ble, South Africa, Ar­gentina, Scot­land, France and Wales weren’t able to take ad­van­tage of it and only once in three tests were Aus­tralia able to claim a vic­tory.

Given the ad­ver­sity the All Blacks faced, Hansen reached De­cem­ber 2017 qui­etly sat­is­fied.

How­ever, If the All Blacks are still con­sid­ered to be vul­ner­a­ble by the end of this year, it will be a dif­fer­ent story. Hansen won’t be happy with that be­cause the in­ten­tion in 2018 is to put a steel plate on the soft un­der­belly ex­posed last year and start build­ing a head of steam to take into World Cup year. The mis­sion is to go from vul­ner­a­ble to ven­er­a­ble.

“Hope­fully we won’t have the same num­ber of in­juries as we did last year and will be able to build com­bi­na­tions and have con­sis­tency in se­lec­tion,” Hansen says.

“We had a se­lec­tion meet­ing re­cently and as we went through each po­si­tion we re­alised we have got good depth, but also that if

ev­ery­one is fit, we have some ar­eas where it is ob­vi­ous who we will se­lect and some po­si­tions where we will have some re­ally good chal­lenges.

“We can’t stand still ei­ther in terms of the way we play so we will make a few sub­tle changes, but our game will still be built on our core skills.”

The in­tent is fairly clear with­out be­ing laboured. The All Blacks in­tend to crank the han­dle this year. Hansen reck­ons there is a wider group of about 45 play­ers who have proven they can play test foot­ball.

The goal in 2018 is to find the best of that group: to sub­tly re­fine the game plan, build core and key com­bi­na­tions and ef­fec­tively reach De­cem­ber with the rest of the world more than con­cerned at the form, mo­men­tum and con­sis­tency of the All Blacks.

The word vul­ner­a­ble shouldn’t be con­nected with the 2018 All Blacks – for­mi­da­ble, fore­bod­ing, men­ac­ing and re­lent­less are what Hansen wants.

If 2017 was about build­ing the base and learn­ing to cope with ad­ver­sity, this year is about re­fin­ing the apex and be­ing more fo­cused on in­flict­ing ad­ver­sity.

Hav­ing a host of test qual­ity play­ers is help­ful, but it doesn’t ac­tu­ally win World Cups. What wins World Cups is per­for­mance and typ­i­cally that is de­liv­ered when coaches are clear about their best start­ing team, hav­ing spent the pre­vi­ous 18 months con­sis­tently pick­ing it and en­abling it to build un­der­stand­ing and co­he­sion.

Through­out the back half of last year Hansen in­sisted his side would leap for­ward this year when the in­jured troops re­turned to the fray. The mo­ment of truth, so to speak, is ar­riv­ing.

“One of the pos­i­tives about go­ing deeper into the pool is that it cre­ates a com­pe­ti­tion that is not talked about,” says Hansen. “There is no need. The play­ers who were in­jured last year saw how the other guys played and what they did and they know what they have to do now. It puts pres­sure on ev­ery­one to play well.”

The play­ers are go­ing to feel that pres­sure ahead of the tests when

they meet up for two train­ing camps in early May.

There was clearly an el­e­ment of un­usual fric­tion dur­ing the re­cent off-sea­son be­tween the All Blacks and the five Su­per Rugby clubs in re­la­tion to th­ese camps.

Mostly the re­la­tion­ship be­tween na­tional

THE PLAY­ERS WHO WERE IN­JURED LAST YEAR SAW HOW THE OTHER GUYS PLAYED AND WHAT THEY DID AND THEY KNOW WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO NOW. IT PUTS PRES­SURE ON EV­ERY­ONE TO PLAY WELL.’ STEVE HANSEN

and fran­chise coaches is pretty good. There are a few crunchy mo­ments – the odd dif­fer­ence of opin­ion about the best use and po­si­tion of cer­tain play­ers and a bit of grum­bling when the na­tional se­lec­tors in­sist on cer­tain stand down clauses and rest pe­ri­ods for the best play­ers.

Things never es­ca­late, though, be­cause ul­ti­mately ev­ery­one re­alises they have to give a lit­tle to get a lit­tle back in a com­pro­mised world where the sea­son is too long and the de­mands too great, but noth­ing can be done to change that.

It was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent at the end of last year, how­ever, as the clubs pushed back hard about the All Blacks’ plans to hold a num­ber of skills days and train­ing camps be­fore the June se­ries against France.

Hansen felt there was no choice. The New Zealand sides will all be play­ing games on the week­end of June 1-2, which means the All Blacks will as­sem­ble on June 3 to play France at Eden Park on June 9.

That would give the na­tional side just five days to pre­pare and, when you con­sider that most of their squad will need to rest and re­cover on the Mon­day be­fore the game, they would be go­ing into that first test dan­ger­ously un­der-pre­pared.

Hansen would have liked an ex­tra week – for the last round of Su­per Rugby be­fore the June break to be played on May 25-26. But de­nied that, he had to ask New Zealand Rugby if they could help him ne­go­ti­ate a deal to hold two train­ing camps plus two lead­er­ship/skills days in March.

This is by no means un­usual or un­prece­dented. The same thing hap­pened in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 when the sea­son was set up the same way, but this

IT BE­COMES A LIT­TLE BIT LIKE WHAT CHI­NESE GEN­ERAL SUN TSU SAYS IN THAT YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOUR EN­EMY. BUT THERE ARE WAYS IN WHICH YOU CAN SUB­TLY CHANGE YOUR GAMEPLAN AND YOU CAN ALSO SET A TRAP FOR YOUR OP­PO­NENT AS THEY CAN AGAINST YOU.’ STEVE HANSEN

year the whole busi­ness got more backs up than nor­mal.

Some Su­per Rugby coaches be­lieve the camps are in­tru­sive, al­most un­nec­es­sary, but Hansen knows they are in­valu­able.

They will be the chance to hone ba­sic skills, in­stil ideas about how he wants the team to play and no doubt to firm up on prob­a­ble se­lec­tion plans for the June se­ries.

Hansen hints he and his fel­low se­lec­tors al­ready feel they know much of the likely make-up of their best side. Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Owen Franks could be­come an im­pos­ing, sea­soned unit by the World Cup.

Sam White­lock and Re­tal­lick are al­ready the best lock­ing com­bi­na­tion in the world. Liam Squire, Sam Cane and Kieran Read need time to­gether to hone their work as a loose trio to be­come as ef­fec­tive as the Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Read com­bi­na­tion which was so good at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups. Aaron Smith and Beau­den Bar­rett are clearly the best de­ci­sion-mak­ing halves pair­ing in the South­ern Hemi­sphere.

Mid­field and the back three are the ar­eas where the All Blacks have to be most open-minded. Sonny Bill Wil­liams, de­spite the in­evitable crit­i­cism, had a big year in 2017 where his de­fence was colos­sal.

He and Ryan Crotty are prob­a­bly the pen­cilled-in mid­field se­lec­tion, but Jack Good­hue brings di­rect run­ning and supreme dis­tri­bu­tion and he could be hard to ig­nore.

In the back three, Ben Smith will play some­where and it could well be on the right wing, with Jordie Bar­rett at full­back and of course Rieko Ioane on the left wing.

The ex­pec­ta­tion is that this team – or some­thing close to it – will be given most of the sea­son, form and in­juries de­pend­ing, to take the All Blacks to a higher level of per­for­mance.

Be­cause of the dra­mas around in­juries last year, the All Blacks held back in terms of adapt­ing and re­fin­ing their style of play. “If you take the front row as an ex­am­ple, the likes of Owen Franks and Joe Moody have been with us for a long time so they un­der­stand their role at the set-piece and have also built skill-sets and un­der­stand­ing of what we need in open play,” says Hansen.

“The newer guys came in last year and per­formed re­ally well in their core roles but were still learn­ing the game in open play so we didn’t in­tro­duce too many new things.”

Some of that ret­i­cence to freshen things up too much tac­ti­cally was driven by a de­sire not to show their hand too early in the World Cup cy­cle.

There is a bal­ance to be struck as any new ideas or vari­a­tions take time to be per­fected so teams can’t keep ev­ery­thing un­der wraps un­til the World Cup. But nor can they un­veil too early as rugby is now in the age of su­per anal­y­sis.

“Com­mu­ni­ca­tion has changed. Once upon a time it was dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate with the North­ern Hemi­sphere. You would send a tele­gram or a let­ter. Now things are in­stant.

“I can sit in my lounge in the South­ern Hemi­sphere watch­ing the Six Na­tions. I can cap­ture that footage and then re­view it in­stantly. So now we have peo­ple who are ex­perts in this area and we call them

TO WIN A WORLD CUP YOU HAVE TO PLAY AT LEAST THREE RE­ALLY TOUGH GAMES IN THE KNOCK-OUT ROUNDS...’ STEVE HANSEN

an­a­lysts and they have full-time jobs. That was un­think­able 20 years ago and it has brought mas­sive changes with this in­for­ma­tion feed­ing into coach­ing groups.

“It be­comes a lit­tle bit like what Chi­nese Gen­eral Sun Tsu says in that you have to know your en­emy. But there are ways in which you can sub­tly change your gameplan and you can also set a trap for your op­po­nent as they can against you.

“But none of this changes the fact that it still comes down to how good your ba­sic skills are and that you need to de­velop skill-sets so you can adapt.”

What Hansen is es­sen­tially say­ing is that at this rar­efied level, most teams come into a test know­ing plenty about each other. What they don’t know is how their op­po­nent will set up on the day.

They may kick more than they usu­ally do. They may work more off half­back than first-five, as the All Blacks did in the first test against the Lions, or they may not rush on de­fence as they pre­vi­ously have.

It’s small things that make a huge dif­fer­ence and flex­i­bil­ity in strat­egy is only pos­si­ble when there is trust and cer­tainty in the com­bi­na­tions and a high skill level across the board.

Trust, co­he­sion and flu­id­ity, as well as supremely ac­cu­rate ex­e­cu­tion of the ba­sics are what the All Blacks are try­ing to build in 2018, so they can reach De­cem­ber with an el­e­ment of con­fi­dence and mo­men­tum to take into World Cup year.

It’s im­por­tant to recog­nise that World Cup year doesn’t ac­tu­ally mean 2019. The tour­na­ment kicks off in Septem­ber 2019, but the All Blacks, and ev­ery other se­ri­ous con­tender, will be­gin their for­mal build up in June this year.

By mid-Oc­to­ber, the World Cup will be in full view for the All Blacks. They are head­ing to Ja­pan for two tests – the third Bledis­loe Cup clash in Yoko­hama, fol­lowed by a clash against the hosts in Tokyo.

The All Blacks have been in Ja­pan in the re­cent past – play­ing a test against the Wal­la­bies there in 2009 and one against Ja­pan in 2013. With the Sun­wolves now in Su­per Rugby there is even greater ex­po­sure to Ja­pan for Kiwi play­ers.

But still, it re­mains a rel­a­tively un­known coun­try to tour and the All Blacks be­lieve their two weeks there this year could be vi­tal ahead of the World Cup.

It will give the play­ers a feel for the nu­ances of Ja­pan – the cul­tural and culi­nary dif­fer­ences and it will also give them ex­po­sure to two of the venues they will play at dur­ing the World Cup.

Be­cause of that and the in­evitable hype their pres­ence will bring, the World Cup is go­ing to be in their face when they are in Ja­pan.

“Go­ing to Ja­pan is go­ing to be a dummy run for the World Cup,” says Hansen. “We will stay at the same bases we are go­ing to stay in at the World Cup and play at two of the venues. It is go­ing to be re­ally good for us to have that ex­tended time and get to know the coun­try a bit bet­ter. We don’t know how many play­ers we will take there yet, but we have con­firmed we will be tak­ing 32 when he head on to Europe.”

And that is what makes this end of year tour so tough: af­ter their two weeks in Ja­pan, they will play tests against Eng­land, Ire­land and Italy. It will be the tough­est five-week end-of-year tour in re­cent history.

The All Blacks have to face the teams cur­rently ranked num­ber two, three and four in the world. It is how Hansen wants it, though.

“To win a World Cup you have to play at least three re­ally tough games in the knock­out rounds so the sched­ule we have gives us a great op­por­tu­nity to play around with dif­fer­ent con­cepts that we might en­counter.

“Aus­tralia are a good side and Eng­land are too, as are Ire­land, so to play those three teams in four weeks is go­ing to be tough.”

Of course the rest of the rugby world sees that game against Eng­land as the defin­ing 80 min­utes of the sea­son and eas­ily the most sig­nif­i­cant game since the World Cup fi­nal.

Ticket prices have been hiked and will sell out in min­utes. The world’s me­dia are go­ing to build the nar­ra­tive around the es­tab­lished force hav­ing to curb the ris­ing tide and the pre-game chat­ter will be end­less.

Surely, know­ing how pow­er­ful and con­sis­tent Eng­land have be­come un­der coach Ed­die Jones, Hansen sees it as more than just an­other game?

“There will ob­vi­ously be a lot of in­ter­est in that game,” says Hansen, “and that will be good for us to have that big­ger build-up. But it won’t be a game that de­fines our sea­son or one that will have any bear­ing on the World Cup.

“It will give us a good idea, though, of where we need to im­prove and it’s ob­vi­ously go­ing to be a big chal­lenge to play Ire­land the week af­ter. So we will find out a lot about our­selves and where we are at.”

NEW SEN­SA­TION Last year the All Blacks lost their first test on home soil since 2009.

TOUGH CALLS Hansen says that if ev­ery­one is fit there will be some tough se­lec­tion calls to be made.

LATE ES­CAPE Beau­den Bar­rett scored with just three min­utes left to en­sure the All Blacks won the Bledis­loe Cup.

END OF THE RUN An in­jury-rav­aged All Blacks weren’t able to de­feat a strong Wal­la­bies side in Bris­bane last year.

SUR­PRISE ,SUR­PRISE Hansen says that one of the big chal­lenges of mod­ern coach­ing is re­tain­ing the el­e­ment of sur­prise.

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