Hansen declares Ireland favourites for 2019 Rugby World Cup

 Hansen declares Ireland favourites for 2019 Rugby World Cup
Joe Schmidt with New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen before the game. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Steve Hansen has stuck to his guns and labelled Ireland as the world's best team – and favourites for next year's World Cup – in the wake of his All Blacks side's loss to the Six Nations champions in Dublin on tonight.

The Kiwi head coach had upped the ante for this game between the world's top-two ranked sides when the tourists arrived in Dublin last Sunday when insisting that this eagerly-awaited test would determine who finished the year as the globe's greatest.

And he leaped on the opportunity - with a side serving of his trademark sarcasm - to increase the pressure on Ireland after this rare defeat when asked explicitly if their conquerors here would be the team to beat in Japan in 2019.

“Well, you'll make them favourites if you want to make them favourites,” said Hansen. “What it does do – and I said during the week that this was a game between the two best sides in the world – is, as of now, they are the number one team in the world. So, yeah, they probably are favourites.”

It was a question he faced, in various formats, more than once in his main post-match press conference but his counterpart was having none of such talk when Hansen's words were put to him later.

“The World Cup? In 12 months time? We've got to work hard in the next week to make sure we are ready for the USA,” said a straight-faced Joe Schmidt. “People will postulate about who is where and who is favourite. It is a nebulous thing for us because all we can do is look to our preparation and performance.”

 Hansen declares Ireland favourites for 2019 Rugby World Cup

Was this mere kidology from the Kiwi head coach, then?

“He kind of uttered it before by saying that ... he probably enjoyed a bit of banter. I have huge respect for Steve. Fozzie (Ian Foster) and Scott McLeod. For us to be favourites when they are number one for nine years and will continue to be after this... They are at the end of a long season and they've been around the world a number of times. We'll take this tonight.”

Like Hansen, Schmidt had to face a number of enquiries on this one subject. One Kiwi journalist asked, almost incredulously, if he wasn't actually doing his players a disservice by refusing the moniker of favourites ahead of the World Cup.

Schmidt, as he does, handled that without much bother.

What I would say is the players do live in a bit of bubble in these (test) periods of time and come out and try to perform. You are being called World Cup favourites but what do you get tangibly from that?

"If we prepare right we get something tangible from that. We can't control what people say but we can control how we prepare and play.”

Hansen, as he did after Ireland's defeat of his side in Chicago in 2016, was gracious in stating that the home team were worthy winners and the better team, but he refuted the idea that the number of errors made by his side had been prompted by the pressure put on by Ireland.

“No. I don't think so,” he said. “Some of the penalties we conceded in the first-half were just dumb.”

Not as dumb as some of the mistakes they made in butchering what should have been at least second-half tries via Kieran Read's knock-on, Beauden Barrett's pass straight to Rob Kearney's bread basket and Barrett's ill-thought grubber which was claimed by Peter O'Mahony when he had men outside on the overlap.

Schmidt referenced each and every one of them. And it was hard not to agree with his assertion that Ireland 'got a bit lucky' in ensuring that this would be just the second time since 1995 that the famed All Blacks were held tryless over the course of a game.

“It is so seldom that the All Blacks don't score a try but there were three potential tries that we managed to scramble on,” said the Ireland head coach. “On another day that goes differently. They are narrow margins.”

A 'heavyweight contest,' Schmidt labelled it.

It was that and more.

Ireland may have enjoyed some luck but they earned it.

Favourites or not for next year's World Cup, this was an enormous step on the way there.

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