Far from banning talk of the World Cup in the All Blacks camp, Steve Hansen is embracing it. “We have to walk towards that pressure,” the coach of the back-to-back champions declares midway through his first gathering of this momentous season.
Hansen has a good chunk of his initial squad of 39 for the first two Rugby Championship tests in Auckland for the back part of the week where they’re launching preparation for what lies ahead. There are no Crusaders as they, hopefully, take care of another trophy 1000-odd kilometres south on Saturday night, and a quartet of Hurricanes are laid up with illness.
But the rest are there, with bells on. The campaign comes in the form of three distinct phases, starting with the first two tests in Buenos Aires and Wellington where the load will be very much shared, out of necessity and invention. Not only does it spare the overworked Crusaders from a gruelling journey, but it gives the coaches a chance to assess a wide range of contenders.
Then the squad will be trimmed back to 34 for the twin Bledisloe encounters in August; and finally to 31 for the final hitout against Tonga on September 7 before they depart for Japan on their quest to become the first team in history to complete a Rugby World Cup threepeat.
* ABs quartet laid low by illness
* Ioane ready to learn off best
* Silence golden for Weber
* Cool hand Luke is up against it
* Squire to Hansen: ‘I’m not ready’
“You’re always going to be thinking about the World Cup because it’s just about there and you can touch it,” said Hansen on Thursday. “For four years we’ve been planning and it’s been easy to let it go because it’s not that close … now, because it’s closer, you’re thinking and talking about it more often.
“That’s OK, because what we’re going to try to do has never been done before. It’s a massive challenge and we’ve got to recapture it. We don’t own the World Cup, it’s been given back and we’ve got to do our best to recapture the thing.
“We have to walk towards that pressure, rather than try to hide away from it.”
Of course Hansen has to balance that with important aspects like ensuring his team has the right skills, game-plan and personnel to stave off the best teams in the world. That group might never have been deeper, or more formidable, than this time round.
He also has a Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup to tick off along the way – one more important than the other, no bones about that – and he has some huge selections calls to make as he refines a group effectively numbering 41 (with the injured Scott Barrett and Ryan Crotty to return) down to just 31.
“The key challenge is to play good footy, winning footy, but to start to master the execution of our game, and get better and better at that,” he adds. “To do that we’ve got to have good decision-making and good skillsets and everything in our training has to be geared towards those things.”
And, again, the World Cup hovers over everything, so you’d be foolish to ignore it, adds the gaffer.
“You can’t avoid talking or thinking about it because everyone is, and there’s genuine excitement about that. There’s more on the line, because if you get this right you may get into the next squad and if you get that right you may go to the World Cup, and how good would that be?
“It’s a balance of mentally coping with the extra pressure and us not making too big a deal about it, but sitting back and watching who is dealing with it and who isn’t.”
Hansen reiterated that the Rugby Championship was third priority of three. “If we don’t win it, we won’t lose any sleep over that,” he says of a competition they’ve finished second in ahead of both their 2011 and 2015 World Cup triumphs.
“We want to win the Bledisloe Cup, for sure, and want to win the World Cup. Along the way we have to make some sacrifices and we may have to take some risks … but hopefully we’ll get the rewards.”
Hansen said he’d learned a lot from the 2015 programme, around being “open and honest” about their game and also understanding that the tournament has a life of its own.
“We’ve got a good opportunity to get to the World Cup in pretty good shape, we’ve got a massive first-up game (against the Boks), and there is a little bit of wriggle room after that. We know we should be there for [five] games, and after that you earn the right to go to training on Monday.”
Hansen reiterated the usual comments about simplifying the first few weeks of the season, the “less is best” principle and the need to understand they’re all fine rugby players and it’s about giving them the structure to come together as a team.
The new chums had also taken important first steps in the environment.
“Webby (Brad Weber) had been a delight and he’s still smiling; Lukey (Luke Jacobson) is a typical loose forward, hard-nosed and just getting on with it, but you can tell there’s a genuine excitement there; and Josh [Ioane] is your typical first five looking to understand how he’s going to run the shop.”
Exciting times. But Hansen quickly banished suggestions of contemplating his “last hurrah”.
“I’ve got a job to do and I’m excited about it … I don’t get too carried away with last hurrahs. Let’s just enjoy what we’re doing, get excited by it, do it well and have a beer after it’s all over.”