Steve Hansen: Joe Schmidt has worked around Irish limitations

Steve Hansen: Joe Schmidt has worked around Irish limitations

Steve Hansen has turned up the temperature for Saturday's hotly-anticipated clash between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium by suggesting that Joe Schmidt has succeeded in spite of some perceived weaknesses on the part of his players.

A master of the barely disguised barb, the All Black head coach spent two seasons in the top job with Wales – who lost eleven straight tests under his watch at one point – between 2002 and 2004 and it was a spell he referenced when asked if he 'liked' the way that Schmidt's Ireland team played.

“Look, you've got to admire what they're doing,” he said.

"Each coach has got to coach the group of athletes the way that best suits them. That was something I found out when I was in Wales: you might have an idea of how you want to play, but if you don't have the athletes that can do that you have to re-jig your thought process.

“They hang on to the ball for long periods of time, they're probably the team in World Rugby that hang on to the ball the most. When they don't get what they want with that they'll take to the air and they've got a good kicking game.

“You've got to admire all of that, it's winning and they'll punish you. They'll find a weakness.

He's pretty good, Joe, at finding a trick or two so we'll be expecting one or two coming our way on Saturday.

Ireland's structured style under Schmidt has not been to everyone's liking but few have taken Hansen's line in insinuating that a squad laced with British and Irish Lions, Grand Slam winners and Champions Cup holders is lacking in the sort of qualities needed to play a more expansive brand of rugby.

Hansen, speaking at a media conference at the team's Dublin hotel on Thursday afternoon, also insisted that the All Blacks have no intention of targeting Ireland scrum-half Kieran Marmion this weekend.

Steve Hansen: Joe Schmidt has worked around Irish limitations

The Connacht nine comes into the side in place of the injured Conor Murray and, while he has 23 caps to his name, his game time against the game's best sides has been limited in light of his Munster counterpart's excellence.

Hansen had been insistent that Murray was a live option to make a dramatic return this week from the neck injury that has wrecked his season – until the IRFU ruled him out of contention with a medical bulletin on Monday.

Marmion's inexperience at this rarified level of Test rugby would make him an obvious point of focus for any opposing team but Hansen was of the view – in public anyway – that his players would be looking to lay down markers elsewhere.

“We never go out to target anybody. If you're going to target anyone you want to target the big boys, because they're the boys that lead you around the park. So, if you can put those kind of guys in the red, then your team struggles more.

We'll just try and go out and play our own game.

The Kiwis' physical approach came in for considerable criticism when these sides last met, in Dublin, in 2016. Normally a side that dominates possession, the visitors were happy to rely on that physicality and their defence on a day when they enjoyed just 25% of the ball.

Should that scenario arise again – unlikely though it is – Hansen would have every confidence in his side's ability to contain and outscore an Irish side that Kiwi assistant Ian Foster said earlier this week was in the habit of 'suffocating' opponents.

“Well, you've got to be confident when you've had the success that this team has had. You have got to keep your self-belief, they're very good at finding a way when things are not going the way they want them to go.

“What most people don't understand is that everybody we play has the game of their lives, because we're the team that they want to beat and they get up for for it.

“So they're playing 10% better than they would have from the get-go and if they're a good side playing 10% better, then we've got to improve a lot ourselves.

“Sometimes it's a real battle. This time of year particularly, we're coming to the end of our season and we've got to find ways to get energised and play with real purpose.”

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