Thursday 19 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'It won’t decide the winners of the 2019 Word Cup but it will provide a massive psychological boost'

Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen will lock horns once again tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images
Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen will lock horns once again tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Not only do we have the top two teams in world rugby coming head to head but central to Saturday evening's proceedings in Dublin is the face-off between the game’s top two coaches.

That they are both native New Zealanders is no coincidence.

The Land of the Long White Cloud leads the way when it comes to rugby with the quality of its coaching reflecting that dominance.

For Steve Hansen who has achieved everything and for Joe Schmidt who has still one mighty Everest (called Webb Ellis) to climb, this meeting – however much they might seek to play it down on a personal level – is massive.

It won’t decide the winners of the 2019 Word Cup but it will provide a massive psychological boost for one man ahead of a pressure-filled build-up to Japan.

Expectations are massive on both sides and while Hansen has clearly learned to live with public demand, Schmidt is still finding his way in that regard.

I don’t know Hansen personally but despite the gruff, bully-like demeanour I like how he goes about his business.

Eddie O’Sullivan marked my card in the early years of this millennium, insisting that despite Hansen taking up the reins from Graham Henry in a desert period for Welsh rugby, here was a new mind on the international block with the hunger and savvy to make a mark.   

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His record as head coach with Wales was awful. His percentage return between 2002 and 2004 (at which point he returned to New Zealand alongside Henry with the All Blacks) was an embarrassingly poor 33.3pc.

He lost all 17 Tests against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, France and Ireland, while also recording Six Nations defeats to the Scots and the Italians.

To the late great Carwyn James was attributed the quote “show me a successful coach and I’ll show you some fairly talented players”, or words to that effect.

There is no denying Hansen’s early failure to deliver at the highest level.

However, upon his return to New Zealand (as assistant to Henry up until the end of the 2011 World Cup) the career of the greatest coach in the history of All Black rugby was under way.

Once he got access to the raw material he delivered in spades.

In terms of maximising rich resources he has been a level apart. His winning record as All Black head coach stands at almost 90pc. Even by Kiwi standards it is a phenomenal achievement of consistency and longevity.

Fourteen years of coaching the All Blacks, seven as the main man and seven as assistant, including back-to-back World Cups, is some achievement.

Fellow Kiwi Schmidt has operated under different conditions entirely.

He hasn’t, as some would have you believe, created a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but given the history and tradition of the game on this island he has imbued a winning mentality through organisation, confidence and self-belief that sees us now within touching distance of rugby-obsessed New Zealand at the top of the ladder.

That is some achievement, one Hansen failed to deliver in his time at Wales, where rugby is also the national obsession.

Were the roles reversed and Schmidt at the helm for the Blacks with Hansen driving the green machine would today represent this eagerly-awaited clash between seeds one and two?

With hand on heart and for all of Hansen’s unparalleled success, I don’t believe so.

The Schmidt factor has been central to us getting to this point and were he to succeed Hansen to the top job in his native land then competitive rugby in a global context might as well fold its tent given what the greatest rugby brain, certainly ever to come our way, might achieve with the ‘Carwyn’ rationale applied to New Zealand.         

As an aside and as a former back it is good to be able to record that the top two coaches in world rugby were both backs in their playing days.

For whatever reason former forwards proliferate but Hansen (a former centre) and Schmidt (an ex-wing) buck that trend.

A second win over the land of his birth would surely put Schmidt in pole position for the top All Black job post-Japan.

Ian Foster (another back) and Vern Cotter (head coach at Clermont with Schmidt as his assistant prior to Leinster’s calling) would also be in that mix. Also Scott Robertson and maybe Warren Gatland too.

Either way the former Tauranga College deputy principal represents serious currency on the global coaching market.

Hansen has had the raw material with which to work but he has certainly made it pay to the betterment of New Zealand rugby.

That is some statement and some achievement given the starting point.

Bear in mind he has also replaced the two key figures in what has been global domination over what will effectively be two World Cup cycles since he took full control.

New Zealand's Beauden Barrett runs with the ball. Photo: Reuters/Ross Setford

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are already etched in New Zealand history as the greatest in their respective positions although I qualify that when pointing to Beauden Barrett (above) coming up on the rails.

McCaw and Carter occupied pivotal positions but more than anything were leaders in adversity and ‘go-to’ players in the white heat of battle.

Kieran Read has already assumed that leadership mantle and Barrett – a work in progress – is well on the way.

Read is one of my favourite all-round rugby players of all time while Barrett excites me more than any out-half since Phil Bennett.

There are two very different type of fly-halves, with very different skill-sets, but both equally thrilling to watch.

To Read and Barrett add Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Dane Coles (although on the bench), as well as the Smiths – Aaron and Ben – for a proven cast to run the reconstituted Hansen show.

On the point of entertainment, if there are two more exciting players in the counter-attacking art than Damian McKenzie and Jordan Larmour, I don’t know them.

Larmour is in reserve but given the seven replacements are loaded with impact I expect the entire Irish bench to be emptied long before the end.

Whisper it, but the team in green could have a final-quarter edge.

A battle of the ages is about to commence. Ireland will hit the ground running but whatever else Schmidt has brought method to our madness. That legacy is set in stone.

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