The love-in would never last – it simply couldn’t. With Eddie Jones and Steve Hansen set to do battle through England and New Zealand, in the heat of a Rugby World Cup semi-final, you just knew that the week somehow would come to life.
The niceties threatened to continue when Hansen threw no punches in Tuesday’s press conference. “Eddie will decide whether he wants to go there and I’ve already decided what I want to do,” said the All Blacks coach.
But some nine miles east of New Zealand’s team hotel, Jones was getting ready to let loose. Allegations of spying, jibes to the Kiwi media, claims that the pressure is all on the reigning world champions, and all said with a smile on the face of the Australia. Jones knew exactly what he was doing, but then again so does Hansen.
The pair started the week by trading texts – not exactly what fierce rivals would be expected to do. The pair are good mates and regularly talk when not in the hotbed of a World Cup campaign, which is perhaps why they are looking forward to Saturday’s encounter so much. Jones started the week off on Sunday by hailing the All Blacks as the greatest team not just in rugby, but in world sport, hailing their win ratio of close to 90 per cent as untouchable by any other team on the planet.
“It’s a really nice statement and I wouldn’t think that Eddie believes that but he is also being quite kind to us,” Hansen said. “History is history and it is about creating new history and both teams are going to go at each other on Saturday, and that game won’t define either team but it will give one team the opportunity to go through to play a final. That’s where everyone’s concentration is. I just know that there is a lot of respect between the two teams and the two coaches.”
Thankfully, the love-in ended with Jones’s dramatic press conference, although with New Zealand enjoying a day off media duties on Wednesday, Hansen’s response will take some time to come – allowing the spy-gate stories to swirl.
However, you get the feeling that Hansen will know exactly what Jones is up to. The Australian used his appearance to stress that the pressure is firmly on New Zealand and their attempt to make history and win the World Cup three times in a row – no other team has won it back-to-back.
“Our guys have experienced it, 13 of our current players went on the Lions tour,” Jones said. “They went down there, they played in their back yard. They know they’re human. They bleed, they drop balls, they miss tackles like every other player.
“It’s our job to take the time and space away so that we put them under pressure. New Zealand talk about walking towards pressure, well this week the pressure is going to be chasing them down the street. That’s the reality of it, that’s how we’re approaching it.
“We’ve got nothing to lose, that’s the exciting thing for us. We can just go out there and play our game. If we’re good enough we’ll win, if we’re not good enough we’ve done our best.”
The problem is that recent history not only suggests but proves that New Zealand are better at dealing with that pressure in the biggest matches than any other team. A World Cup final under the pressure of an expectant home crowd? Tick. A second successive final victory against your resurgent historic rivals? Tick. When New Zealand need to deliver, more often than not they do.
Which is perhaps why Jones has resorted to such tactics, not to provoke a response from the All Blacks, but from his own team. The biggest surprise on Tuesday was not that Jones was putting himself up, but putting Farrell up alongside him. The England captain tends to only speak on team announcements and match days, so why was he sitting here in front of the swelling numbers of journalists and broadcasters? To send a message.
Jones wanted Farrell to see his little experiment, with the “hands up” approach helping to build that siege mentality that Jones so desperately craves for. It was a play straight from the Jose Mourinho playbook, but then Jones has been writing his own version far longer than the Portuguese.
Yet Farrell will take that message back to the rest of the squad, and you can bet your bottom yen that the words “no one has given us a chance!” are bellowed inside the England dressing room in those final seconds before Saturday’s match. It is an attempt to lift the pressure on a squad that is facing a World Cup semi-final for the first time in unquestionably the biggest match of their individual and collective careers, and that and only that will give England a fighting chance against the ‘best in the world’.
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