DONAL LENIHAN: Hansen ready for every All Black eventuality

Gentleman, that he is, Beaumont whispers to Moss “may the best team win”.

“Christ, I hope not,” replied Moss.

As with some of the tales surrounding my late, lamented, second row partner, there remains a certain mythical element to that one. There is nothing mythical, however, about the merits of the New Zealand side that arrived in Dublin a few days ago and no disputing the fact they are indeed a better side than Ireland.

That was also the case this time last year when the All Blacks pitched up at Twickenham, seeking to become the first team in the professional era to secure a 100% record of success in a calendar year. England won 38-21.

Let’s face facts, however. The chances of history repeating itself at the Aviva on Sunday lie somewhere between slim and none. New Zealand are very unlikely to allow a chance of creating another bit of rugby history bypass them for a second successive year and the odds are stacked heavily against Ireland.

This New Zealand team are a joy to watch but not much fun to play against. The gospel as preached by Joe Schmidt in his time with Leinster revolved around being clinical and accurate in execution. He is, after all, a New Zealander and when it comes to demonstrating those traits at present, no team does it better than his native country.

Steve Hansen has done a fantastic job since succeeding Graham Henry at the helm of New Zealand rugby. They could have gone one of two ways after reaching their holy grail when winning the World Cup in 2011. If anything they are a better side now, liberated by having that monkey off their back.

When announcing the Irish side to face Australia last week, Schmidt stated that one of his primary goals is to develop a squad of up to 35 players with the capacity to perform at international level. One of the key differences between Ireland and New Zealand at present is that Hansen has already arrived at that place.

As part of Henry’s coaching ticket that delivered the Webb Ellis trophy two years ago, Hansen appreciated just how over-dependent the All Blacks became on Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. When Carter went down injured during that campaign, a state of emergency was declared in the country which only got worse with further injuries to back up No 10’s Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade.

With Nick Evans allowed to fly the nest and join Harlequins, fifth choice Stephen Donald was summoned from a fishing trip to play a key role when New Zealand stuttered over the line in the final against France. The fact t McCaw had to play the last four games of the campaign with a broken bone in his foot which meant he couldn’t train, complicated things even further. Hansen absorbed the lesson. He determined that, on his watch, New Zealand would never find themselves with an over-dependence on any one player.

McCaw was granted a career break last year while Carter has missed a lot of rugby in recent times due to ongoing niggles. He has also been offered a sabbatical from the game over the next nine months in an effort to make it to the 2015 event in England. Hansen, however, has already taken time to blood quality replacements should that quality pairing fail to go the distance. As a result, Carter’s absence from Sunday’s Test has barely raised an eyebrow in the All Black camp despite the fact that he won his 100th cap last weekend.

Carter has only featured in six of New Zealand’s 13 Tests to date this season with Cruden, Slade, Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor all seeing game time in the recently completed Rugby Championship. In fact, all bar Slade are in the current tour party. It is very unusual to carry four out-halves on a tour — remember the Lions only brought Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to Australia — but Hansen is determined to have all bases covered and is investing time in his younger players. Cruden won his 28th cap against England while Barrett has 15 tests under his belt. Taylor won his third in the tour opener against Japan.

While McCaw is still the heartbeat of this great side, his long-term replacement as captain has already been identified with outstanding No 8 Kieran Reid performing that role on several occasions. In playing terms, his heir apparent Sam Cane has already won 14 caps, despite only making his debut against Ireland last year.

Canterbury’s Mark Todd has also sampled game time in the famous black jersey, while in an effort to expand his options at open side even further, Hansen has included 20-year-old Ardie Savea, brother of All Black winger Julian, as an apprentice player on the tour.

He was outstanding for Wellington this season but will not be included in any match day squad on this tour. He is only here to observe and learn. Don’t bet against him being back as part of the full squad for the next World Cup. Hansen may well decide to leave out a few regulars when he announces his team for Sunday’s game but don’t be fooled by that. They are all grizzled performers.

Instead Ireland’s much debated player welfare programme has left a number of key performers lacking game time coming into this Guinness Series.

It was always a big ask for Brian O’Driscoll to perform against Australia with just 142 minutes of rugby behind him since last June. Any 28-year-old would struggle in that context not to mind someone six years older. Recent injuries also contributed to Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Mike Ross struggling with the intensity the Wallabies brought to the table last Saturday. Trouble is, with another crisp dry day forecast for Dublin next Sunday, the All Blacks will seek to play at an even higher tempo than Australia.

At least Ireland have a full picture of what is coming down the line and I am absolutely certain that the “emotional intensity”, O’Connell conceded was missing against the Aussies will be very much back in evidence against New Zealand.

As Moss Keane discovered that day in Twickenham all those years ago, you don’t always have to be the best to win.

* The news the Government are to consider backing a bid for Ireland to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup would offer a massive boost to the game in this country and indeed the country as a whole. It is a subject I will come back to over the next few weeks but not only am I enthused by the prospect but I’m 100% confident we could deliver on all fronts in making it a truly memorable experience for both the visiting teams and rugby followers from all competing nations.


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