“YOU’VE GOT TO be confident when you’ve been as successful as this team has,” said Steve Hansen. And his team-sheet to face Ireland was an equally bullish statement of intent.
Rather than run horses for courses and bench Damien McKenzie in favour of moving the better aerial combatant Ben Smith to fullback, the All Black head coach is picking the team that will best suit their own strengths.
And with a clear night forecast in south Dublin this Saturday (kick-off 7pm), conditions could be just right for the electric counter-attacking abilities of McKenzie and Rieko Ioane.
Hansen and his coaching staff are expecting to do plenty of defending in the Aviva Stadium, against an Ireland side who have made their name through an ability to recycle possession and run up a high phase count while probing for weakness in an opponents’ defensive line.
New Zealand’s attack coach Ian Foster this week referred to Ireland’s threat as ‘suffocate by possession’ and Hansen will task his players with stealing, slowing and frustrating Ireland to force them to lose or kick possession away.
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When the latter happens, the All Blacks won’t be eager to give it right back.
“You hang onto it yourself and have a crack at them at source,” said the World Cup-winning coach when asked how to counteract Ireland’s game.
“They hang onto the ball for long periods of time. They’re probably the team in World Rugby who hang onto the ball the most. If they don’t get what they want they take to the air.
Jordie Barrett with all manner of contraptions to help Ben Smith practice taking Garryowens. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
“They’ve got a good kicking game. You’ve got to admire all of that, it’s winning. They’ll punish you, they’ll find a weakness. And he’s pretty good, Joe, at finding a trick or two, so we’ll be expecting one of two coming our way Saturday.”
New Zealand just might have a trick of their own in store as Hansen dismissed the notion of holding anything back for a potential meeting between these sides in a World Cup quarter-final (or later) in Japan next year.
“If you don’t throw everything at them, you get second,” says the 59-year-old, who has lived the last seven years – at a minimum – at the pinnacle of the sport.
“What most people don’t understand is that every team we play has the game of their lives, because we’re the team they want to beat.