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.
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.