Hansen tips his hat to old nemesis
Luckily a smile laced the sage coaching face and words which tumbled out of Steve Hansen as he suggested the Springboks were favourites for tonight’s test combat with the All Blacks.
Hansen was doing his bit for the promotion of the Cake Tin test and showing the respect he demanded from his players as they all prepared to meet the old enemy.
For generations of New Zealanders who recall rugby before it went professional, the Springboks were the yardstick every team measured themselves against as they brought decades of history which filled the sports pages and drew massive audiences.
That world order has changed for the Boks as South Africa and rugby faces up to the plethora of changing mores and demands in their nation.
They are ranked seventh in the world, have lost their last two tests on the road to Argentina and the Wallabies and have not beaten the All Blacks since 2014.
But there was Hansen, mindful of the job he wanted his men to achieve, putting a new twist on the global rankings as he placed the visitors in the favoured frame on the evidence of the sides’ last meeting when the Springboks narrowly lost 24-25 at Newlands.
Everyone will have a view about Hansen’s judgment.
He comes from a background which understood the influence of the Boks on All Blacks history and the concerted power of their rugby. He’d been raised to respect any opposition who had earned that reputation and had encountered it through his Super Rugby and international connections.
Hansen formed a friendship with former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer which reinforced the admiration both had for the way they went about their work and the parts they were playing in a protracted sporting relationship between the two nations.
On the evidence of their recent work, Hansen knew his latest summary flattered the Boks’ chances of victory tonight but he was politely tipping his hat to a great rugby nation and savvy enough to think of the close calls his side has been through. There was the turnaround a year ago from a rollicking half-century win at Albany to a single point escape at Newlands and the tense two-point semifinal margin at the 2015 World Cup.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus brought great playing credentials as a fine test loose forward and was now searching for the right blend of players and style as he grappled with his promotion to the top job. Those multiple tasks took a toll as Hansen knew from his time coaching Wales.
Dismissing the Boks is the sporting path for supporters or those who choose to take their hard-earned to the betting shop. Hansen’s job is to keep his team on task, get their focus right for kickoff so they can do their talking out on the field.
Steve Hansen is savvy enough to think of the close calls his side has been through.