Hansen has tough calls to make as All Blacks coach
Saturday 17 December 2011
New All Blacks coach Steve Hansen yesterday ascended to the job he had publicly coveted for the best part of a year, but he inherits a team in transition and will have tough choices to make as the World Cup winners put the Graham Henry era behind them.
The 65-year-old Henry vacated New Zealand's second most scrutinised job on 1 November, taking with him an impressive legacy of 88 victories in 103 Tests, a series clean sweep of the 2005 British and Irish Lions, five Tri-Nations titles, three Grand Slam tours and a World Cup title.
Hansen, who had been brought into the Wales set-up in 2001 by Henry and then served as his assistant for eight years with the All Blacks, has the onerous task of ensuring that legacy of high achievement continues.
The 52-year-old, however, inherits a team that is slowly but inevitably fracturing, through retirement and the ever-present lure of overseas contracts.
Much of the spine of the World Cup squad will remain intact for the duration of Hansen's two-year contract, although experienced full-back Mils Muliaina and Brad Thorn, the veteran lock, have already slipped off to ply their trade in Japan.
Hansen will be forced to make some hard decisions on several vastly experienced players whose All Blacks careers are nearing an end. Hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore, prop Tony Woodcock, lock Ali Williams and centre Conrad Smith are all 30 or older, while Ma'a Nonu will reach the milestone next year. All have achieved more than 50 Test caps for the All Blacks, performing consistently well at the highest level. The major concern, though, could be the possible international retirement over the next two years of two of the greatest players rugby has seen: stand-off Dan Carter and captain and flanker Richie McCaw.
While both have committed to New Zealand rugby for another four years, injuries are starting to mount for the pair and it is doubtful whether they will still be around for their fourth World Cup in England in 2015.
Hansen will therefore need to continue refreshing the squad to add to the young players such as full-back Israel Dagg, No 8 Kieran Read and tight-head prop Owen Franks, all introduced in the last two years, and to get them ready for 2015. He will also have to judge the right time to blood promising players like Canterbury flanker Matt Todd and Taranaki fly-half Beauden Barrett and ensure that they are given time to flourish within the environment.
He is well aware, of course, that the New Zealand public will demand the same kind of success delivered by Henry; and they will want it achieved through an attractive, attacking style.
While Hansen was the only candidate put forward for an interview by the New Zealand Rugby Board, and then received a unanimous endorsement, in reality he was the only choice. Questions will no doubt be asked as to whether he was the best man for the job, or just the best man available.
Former All Blacks Warren Gatland and Robbie Deans have been locked into long-term contracts with Wales and Australia respectively, while the former Japan coach John Kirwan is highly regarded but could not fulfil the selection criteria. Candidates must have coached at the top level within New Zealand in the past 12 months, or for a total of three years, no longer than five years ago.
There was also a dearth of local experienced Super Rugby coaches, and while Todd Blackadder (Crusaders), Mark Hammett (Hurricanes) and Jamie Joseph (Highlanders) are highly thought of, it was felt they were not quite ready to step up.
Hansen is also no stranger to criticism. After taking over from Henry as head coach of Wales during the 2002 Six Nations, the team suffered a run of 10 successive losses, only broken shortly before the 2003 World Cup. He also came under fire when he returned to New Zealand to work under Henry as the All Blacks forwards' coach.
Hansen was criticised when the All Blacks line-out failed to function during the 2009 Tri-Nations, and New Zealand were beaten three times by the Springboks. He stepped away from those responsibilities for a short time before turning them around in 2010.
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