Why Steve Hansen is bestowing quasi-World Cup final status on this one

There was a time, not so long ago in fact, when the thought of losing to Ireland wasn’t so bad for an All Blacks fan.

No, seriously.

For a start, you weren’t Australia and you definitely weren’t England, the rivals we really, really hate losing to. But mainly, I think, it was because deep down, we knew it wouldn’t happen.

Then suddenly, in Chicago of all places, it did.

With that, the dynamic has changed. The thought of losing to Ireland is no longer as palatable as it once seemed.

“It’s one and two so whoever wins it will be the best side in the world regardless of rankings — that’s the mental state that people will take out of it, so it’ll be a goody,” All Black coach Steve Hansen said.

I reproduce this quote only because it’s a very un-Hansen-like thing to say. His default setting is to downplay the significance of results. Not this time. He’s afforded it quasi-World Cup final status.

Perhaps it’s mind games. Perhaps it’s a reminder to New Zealanders that a positive result in Dublin can no longer be taken for granted.

We loved you when you were a plucky underdog. When you’d build your rugby house of straw and sticks and we, the big bad wolf, would let you feel you were safe for a while before blowing it down.

It doesn’t work like that anymore. You have built something really solid, something that requires more than a bit of huffing and puffing, more than a bit of All Black mystique, to destroy.

It takes 80 minutes of good, solid, sometimes spectacular rugby.

A test against Ireland, especially away from the comforts of home, now comes with an immutable message: we could lose this.

There’s an edge to this match. There’s an anticipation that matches what we experienced last Sunday morning, when we met England, by some strange quirk in the rugby calendar, for the first time in four years.

And it’s wonderful.

There were warning signs the year before Chicago that the relationship was changing but they were largely ignored.

You might remember. Ireland leading by five at the place we still call Lansdowne Road. Johnny Sexton with a relatively easy pot at goal late in the game. Pushes it.

Ireland in possession and still up 22-17 with time just about up. Penalty. The All Blacks don’t fling desperation passes like most teams would with normal time expired. They bloodlessly, brilliantly move downfield. Left and right. Back to the left again. Coles to Crotty, over in the corner.

Cruden misses the conversion. Draw. But no, there is one more cruel twist. His false-start style has, not for the first time, drawn defenders too early. He retakes. He scores. The All Blacks win.

Of course they do. It’s what always happens.

Until they went to Soldier Field and it didn’t happen. Ireland earned a lead that the All Blacks threatened but couldn’t overhaul.

Funny thing is, New Zealand went to Dublin a few weeks later and won a tough encounter, but nobody remembers that.

Everybody remembers Chicago.

Whether this had any role in Hansen’s messaging this week is debatable. Coaches, the good ones, tend not to waste energy looking back, which was why it was surprising to hear Joe Schmidt — a very good coach and one many here would love to see as the next All Black gaffer — say he still bleeds over 2013.

Hansen has a saying after a bad performance: “It’s time to flush the dunny and move on.”

So instead he’ll look at weaknesses to explore and match-ups to exploit. In truth, and even after removing the All Blacks eye-patch most of us down here tend to wear, it’s hard to see any areas where Ireland will be demonstrably better.

You might look at the names and the experience and think you have an edge in the front row but let me be the first to tell you that Karl Tu’inukuafe might have just 11 caps, but he’s quite something. Don’t expect much change out of the scrum.

The second row, led by the brilliant Brodie Retallick and complemented by rock-solid 106-cap veteran Sam Whitelock, will not be bested.

When has New Zealand ever fielded a poor loose forward trio?

Aaron Smith has been out of form and the selectors are still finding their best midfield combination, so there’s that, but elsewhere in the backline, there are men who can

conjure five-pointers from nothing.

There might not be the same potent threats throughout the Ireland line-up but you have several things working heavily in your favour.

The All Blacks are tired. It’s been a long season. It always is. If their thoughts aren’t turning towards the beach, they wouldn’t be human.

They are a long way from home and there will be 50,000-odd Irishmen and women reminding them of that. The All Blacks travel better than most but home-ground advantage still counts for something, as was demonstrated at Twickenham last week.

Belief. The All Blacks have always possessed reservoirs of this potion. Nowadays, Ireland do too.

We probably don’t like you as much as we used to. You’re a rival now, not just a team we beat every so often.

The mind of an All Black fan is a restless, hard-to-satisfy, sometimes dark place. It’s a place where bad thoughts about rival rugby teams gather.

Ireland now occupies a corner of this mind.

Well done, you’ve earned it.

* Dylan Cleaver is the sports editor-at-large for NZ Herald titles.

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