Wednesday 28 June 2017

Nobody buying Hansen's underdog claims

‘I wouldn’t suggest he become a bookmaker,’ says Schmidt as New Zealand coach insists Ireland are favourites for Aviva re-match

New Zealand’s TJ Perenara in action during training in Westmanstown, Dublin yesterday. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
New Zealand’s TJ Perenara in action during training in Westmanstown, Dublin yesterday. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even Joe Schmidt was suggesting that Steve Hansen stick to the day job after the New Zealand coach suggested his side are the underdogs for tomorrow's rematch at the Aviva Stadium.

Yes, that Steve Hansen; those All Blacks. The double world champions who have won 92pc of their 66 games by an average winning margin of 19 points since he took over. They suffered their only defeat in their last 20 fixtures against Ireland at Soldier Field two weeks ago.

During his time in charge, New Zealand have never been underdogs for any game. They are the best team in the world by some distance and one loss doesn't change that.

Yet, when he named his team yesterday morning Hansen had the temerity bill his side as the plucky outsiders.

"We know the challenge we face from Ireland will again be massive and we are going into the game as the underdogs," he said.

"They'll be full of confidence and committed to delivering on their home patch. We will have to take a massive step up to get the performance we are looking for. It is a challenge that this team needs right now and how we respond will tell us a lot about ourselves."

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

DISINGENUOUS

It is at best mischievous and at worst disingenuous given that Ireland's win in Chicago was their first in 29 attempts over the course of 111 years, but the former Wales supremo was trying to change the narrative around his team. Ireland should probably take it as a compliment.

The word underdog came up in all of the subsequent player interviews conducted at the team's Castleknock base and Schmidt was asked about it at his team announcement press conference.

Read more: 'I wouldn't suggest he becomes a bookmaker': Schmidt dismisses Hansen's mind games and explains why O'Brien got the nod

"I wouldn't suggest that he become a bookmaker," Schmidt said beneath raised eyebrows. "I think we're at about 6/1. Not that we're allowed to indulge in that, but it's probably better than the 12/1 or 13/1 we were in Chicago."

Schmidt was bang on. You could get Ireland at between 5/1 and 7/1 depending on your bookmaker yesterday, while the spread suggests New Zealand start with a 16-point head start, down on the 23 points offered ahead of the Soldier Field clash.

Clearly the markets are not buying Hansen's reasoning.

Yet, when he sat himself down at the Castleknock Hotel it was no surprise what the opening question was: How did you figure that one out?

"Just go back to Chicago. I think it was 40-29," he argued. "So, therefore, they've got to be the favourites; they won the last game and they won it easy. We have to be the underdogs.

"It's irrelevant whether it's strange or one that we're used to; it's just a fact. You can't avoid facts.

"They are what they are and our job is to go out and make sure we play better than we did the last time, and hopefully that will be good enough for us to get the result that we want.

"But I'm sure Ireland will be going out to do the things that they want to do and one win won't be enough in 111 years. They'll be keen for another one so it should be a cracking game, and one we're looking forward to."

Fact or no, the All Blacks are taking this one seriously. They haven't lost to an opponent back to back since then world champions South Africa beat them three times on the trot in 2009 and they're not in the mood to do it again.

"How would you imagine it felt?" he asked when quizzed on that memory.

"We weren't sitting there laughing about it, I'll give you that tip. But history shows it can happen. You've just got to go out, prepare the best you can and then go and deliver a performance you can be proud of.

"And if the opposition are better than you on the day, then you've got to accept that. We don't have any God-given right to win every game of rugby but what we do know is if we prepare well and our attitude is good then we're going to be hard to beat.

"The other team has to do the same and if they're good enough we'll accept that and move on to the next game, try and get better. It's one of the things we talk about all the time, trying to be better."

By recalling Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Israel Dagg to his starting XV, Hansen has certainly shifted the odds in his side's favour even if he doesn't see it that way.

Read more: How can Ireland beat the All Blacks again? Here are five areas Joe Schmidt must focus on

Losing Jerome Kaino to injury is a blow given Liam Squire's poor day at the office in Chicago, while Ryan Crotty and George Moala mean the impressive Anton Lienert-Brown joins Malakai Fekitoa in the centre.

The selection call that perhaps raised most eyebrows was his decision to stick with Aaron Smith who has endured a torrid few months and culminated in a terrible display on his return to the black jersey two weeks ago.

"We think he's the best half-back in the world," he said. "You guys probably think Conor Murray is, so that'll be how the battle goes, I suppose.

"Half-backs usually play well if the tight five do the job; as do loose forwards for that matter. Both tight fives have to provide a platform for their half-backs who then allow their stand-offs, or five-eighths as we call them, to control the game. In Chicago, (Johnny) Sexton and Murray controlled the game because of the platform they had up front. As long as I've been watching rugby, which is a long time, until the day I die that won't change. Rugby is about winning the battle up front."

With his "underdogs" comment, Hansen indulged in a little bit of mind games, but his players won't need much motivation as they look to eradicate the memory of Soldier Field.

"If you can't motivate yourself, then you shouldn't be in an international team and the reality is to perform at high-level competition in any sport it's self-motivation that's the key," he said.

"There's a lot of people who know that they didn't play well a couple of weeks ago and they'll be disappointed with that because they're highly competitive athletes. So, their motivation and complacency won't be a problem; attitudinally they're in the house."

Ireland favourites?

He's not fooling anyone.

Irish Independent

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