Mischievous All Black boss Hansen takes aim at French

What was Steve Hansen thinking?
Mischievous All Black boss Hansen takes aim at French

The question, posed by one of the many French journalists present at a monstrous media gathering at Swansea RFC’s quaint old St Helen’s grounds yesterday, was innocuous enough. Something along the lines of the World Cup history between France and the All Blacks.

Everyone knew what he was getting at. Twice, in 1999 and 2007, France have claimed the unlikeliest of victories over New Zealand at this tournament and maybe that was it. Maybe the All Black head coach was just spooked into what some would call a ‘brain fart’.

“When we think about [the relationship] we don’t limit it to the Rugby World Cup,” Hansen replied. “There is a great relationship between the two counties for a long time, apart from the Rainbow Warrior.

From a rugby point of view, we’ve got similar athletes.

“France have always had great athletes, built around flair in the backs and physicality up front. I’m nor sure it’s the same flair that they’ve got now what with their league, the Super 14, I’m not sure what it’s called, oh, the Top 14.

“That has become quite a dour competition with a lot of physicality and I know they are trying to capture that flair.” So, let’s recap.

The part where he claimed not to know what the most lucrative league in the world was called, one where Dan Carter will join the well-worn path taken by countless Kiwis before him, would have been a bad enough jibe in and of itself.

But, the Rainbow Warrior?

Its 30 years since the Greenpeace ship was sunk by French special forces in Auckland Harbour with the loss of one crew member’s life. It was an incident that sparked a diplomatic kerfuffle between the countries and referencing it yesterday was odd in the extreme. It was actually a strange performance, all told.

Hansen was extremely complimentary of the French at times, at others less so. One query as to why he thought the traditional penchant for flair was lost by Les Bleus was met with a rejoinder that was almost designed to put Philippe Saint-Andre’s nose out of joint.

“I’m not sure,” said Hansen, “You’ll have to ask the coaches. Usually, the coach has something to do with it.” The three changes to Saint-Andre’s team were parsed matter-of-factly. Hansen spoke for a spell about the decision to drop Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield for Alexandre Dumoulin though the latter’s name wasn’t used by either the Kiwi questioners or the coach.

Maybe they just couldn’t think of it. It wouldn’t have been the first time that a southern hemisphere team had travelled to Europe and found themselves wanting when it came to queries about specific individuals among their hosts’ ranks.

Hansen didn’t mention Wesley Fofana by name either, but he did talk about how he could “skin you as soon as look at you”, while Thierry Dusatoir was hailed as the second-best openside flanker in the game this past 10 or so years. No prizes for guessing who Hansen rates even more.

Dusatoir was heroic in that defeat of the All Blacks in Cardiff in 2007, and again four years ago when he was named man of the match in a final France were desperately unlucky to lose, and Hansen has wheeled out the big guns for this latest tête-a- tête.

The starting XV will boast just a dozen caps short of a thousand.

The four changes from their game with Tonga see Richie McCaw return at number 7 and Wyatt Crockett replace the injured Tony Woodcock at loosehead. Brodie Retallick comes in to the second row while Julian Savea starts on the wing.

The French curse aside, there have been concerns expressed about the form of the All Blacks, both individually and collectively, with players of the quality of Kieran Read, Aaron Smith and Jerome Kaino having their performances dissected back home. Hansen brushed all that aside yesterday.

“I can understand why there is a concern at home because they are at home and they are not here and they don’t know what we are doing. When you don’t have control over something your tendency as a human being is to worry, but it is a wasted emotion.

“I’m extremely happy where we are at. Our attitude has been one of excitement and looking to this game. We know what is at stake, as everyone else does. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. With all due respect, it’s not the same edge when you’re playing Namibia.”

Edge is one thing we can take for granted in Cardiff tomorrow.

NEW ZEALAND:

B Smith; N Milner-Skudder, C Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter, A Smith; W Crockett, D Coles, O Franks; B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino, R McCaw, K Read.

Replacements:

K Mealamu, J Moody, C Faumuina, V Vito, S Cane, T Kerr-Barlow, B Barrett, SB Williams.

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