Hansen's All Blacks aim to maintain Euro grip
New Zealand arrive in Scotland after decade of autumn Test dominance
Sunday 11 November 2012
Ten years ago this weekend Steve Hansen watched his team run in seven tries and score a half-century of points. Asked whether he was happy with Wales' 58-14 thrashing of Fiji at the Millennium Stadium he did not permit himself a smile. "We've still got a mountain to climb," he said.
Back then, the peak Hansen had in mind was a date with his native New Zealand. That same day – 9 November, 2002 – the All Blacks were beaten 31-28 at Twickenham. It was their last defeat in an end-of-year tour match in Europe.
Hansen is in charge of an All Blacks squad looking to maintain a decade of dominance in European autumn Tests (they were, of course, beaten by France in Cardiff in 2007 but that was in a World Cup quarter-final). He has another mountain to climb.
The Tests against Scotland at Murrayfield today, Italy in Rome next Saturday, Wales in Cardiff on 24 November and then England at Twickenham on 1 December are all foothills en-route to the Rugby World Cup in 2015. There were those who thought Hansen had assumed a thankless task when he stepped up from Graham Henry's assistant to become head coach of the All Blacks in the wake of their World Cup win on home soil a year ago. After such an Everest, surely there would only be a descent on the other side? Perhaps not.
New Zealand have had their rocky moments under Hansen. A Dan Carter drop goal got them out of jail with a 22-19 win against Ireland in Christchurch in June and a failed Carter drop ended their winning streak at 16 matches with an 18-18 draw against Australia in Brisbane three weeks ago.
Still, they roll up at Murrayfield unbeaten in 2012 and having shown a step up in class since the World Cup-winning campaign of 2011. They have bucked the trend of World Cup winners imploding. Indeed, they have gathered momentum and risen to a higher level under Hansen, who was ultimately less successful when he succeeded Henry as Wales' head coach from 2002 to 2004.
"That's the whole ethos of this team," Hansen said. "At the beginning of the year we set out some goals and we challenged ourselves in two areas quite largely. One was the opposition: we'll respect them, regardless of what they've done. We'll see them for what they are. The second was ourselves: being able to play better than before, so seeing Dan Carter come out and challenge himself to be a better player than he was the week before. And by and large we've managed to do that.
"There have been a couple of games where we've let ourselves down, and one not so long ago. That's fairly fresh in our minds. There's been a lot of hard work gone in this week into rectifying those problems.
"Everyone was saying we'd have a hangover after the World Cup and that made us more determined. The first meeting I had with Richie McCaw we discussed that. The first meeting I had with the coaches, when they came on board, we discussed that, and ways of making sure that didn't happen.
"We've introduced nine new players this season, which is about a third of the squad. We've got a number of players who have never been to Scotland before. That brings enthusiasm to your touring group and excitement. When an All Black side are like that they're usually on the job. And when they're on the job, they've got a lot of talent and because of that they're capable of winning games."
When the All Blacks were last in Edinburgh, two years ago, with Henry in charge and Hansen assisting, they used the opportunity to develop new talent. They gave Sonny Bill Williams his second cap and the rugby league convert proceeded to sprinkle stardust all over Murrayfield in the "second five-eighth" inside centre role, sparkling in tandem with Carter in a record 49-3 win.
This afternoon Carter has an experimental midfield outside him, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith. Hansen has mixed and matched his team and will do so again in Rome next Saturday. His strongest XV will face Wales and England but the developing talent will all go into the All Black blend for 2015.
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