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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 11 December, 2018

Hansen's All Blacks intent on doing 'a wee bit of suffocating ourselves'

The All Blacks won’t be in a rush to kick possession Ireland’s way.

New Zealand in training today.
New Zealand in training today.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“YOU’VE GOT TO be confident when you’ve been as successful as this team has,” said Steve Hansen. And his team-sheet to face Ireland was an equally bullish statement of intent.

Rather than run horses for courses and bench Damien McKenzie in favour of moving the better aerial combatant Ben Smith to fullback, the All Black head coach is picking the team that will best suit their own strengths.

And with a clear night forecast in south Dublin this Saturday (kick-off 7pm), conditions could be just right for the electric counter-attacking abilities of McKenzie and Rieko Ioane.

Hansen and his coaching staff are expecting to do plenty of defending in the Aviva Stadium, against an Ireland side who have made their name through an ability to recycle possession and run up a high phase count while probing for weakness in an opponents’ defensive line.

New Zealand’s attack coach Ian Foster this week referred to Ireland’s threat as ‘suffocate by possession’ and Hansen will task his players with stealing, slowing and frustrating Ireland to force them to lose or kick possession away.

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When the latter happens, the All Blacks won’t be eager to give it right back.

“You hang onto it yourself and have a crack at them at source,” said the World Cup-winning coach when asked how to counteract Ireland’s game.

What we do with the ball ourselves will be important. So when we kick it, we’ve to kick it well, make sure we get a chance to get it back and do a wee bit of suffocating ourselves.”

“They hang onto the ball for long periods of time. They’re probably the team in World Rugby who hang onto the ball the most. If they don’t get what they want they take to the air.

Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith Jordie Barrett with all manner of contraptions to help Ben Smith practice taking Garryowens. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“They’ve got a good kicking game. You’ve got to admire all of that, it’s winning. They’ll punish you, they’ll find a weakness. And he’s pretty good, Joe, at finding a trick or two, so we’ll be expecting one of two coming our way Saturday.”

New Zealand just might have a trick of their own in store as Hansen dismissed the notion of holding anything back for a potential meeting between these sides in a World Cup quarter-final (or later) in Japan next year.

“If you don’t throw everything at them, you get second,” says the 59-year-old, who has lived the last seven years – at a minimum – at the pinnacle of the sport.

“What most people don’t understand is that every team we play has the game of their lives, because we’re the team they want to beat.

“They get up for it and they’re playing 10% better than they normally would from the get-go. If they’re playing 10% better we’ve got to improve ourselves and sometimes it’s a real battle.”

Steve Hansen Hansen speaks about his team selection in Blanchardstown today. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Possession may not quite be a full 9/10s of the law in this case. The world number one slot will likely go to the side who are able to clinically take their chances and it’s pointed out to Hansen that his charges had just 34% of the ball when they beat Ireland in the last meeting between the sides in 2016.

Later, in Carton House, Joe Schmidt referred to that fixture as one marked by ‘befuddling’ decisions by referee Jaco Peyper. Wayne Barnes’ ears will have been burning all week with all the pressure directed his way from both camps.

“Our discipline around the breakdown has been pretty good of late,” Hansen feels.

“It’s pretty clear what Barnsey wants, so if you deliver what he wants then you should be okay.”

Of course, Jonathan Sexton didn’t sound quite so sure that meeting Barnes’ requirements was a straightforward task and the Blanchardstown-based Kiwis responded to his power move by highlighting the Ireland out-half’s open line of communication with officials.

“Barnesy is a great ref. Johnny seems to give him a bit of advice on the park too. So I’m sure he’ll carry on doing that,” offered Foster, with Hansen also alluding to a penchant for lobbying referees when asked to assess the number 10′s all-round game.

“He’s a real competitor, isn’t he, and he likes to get what he wants and drive the team the way he wants to drive it or the way Joe wants to drive it. You’ve got to admire what he’s done. He’ll be a key man for them tomorrow.”

Ireland are used to having a target placed on Sexton and it might seem be logical for New Zealand to factor Conor Murray’s absence in and try to exploit any deficiencies in Kieran Marmion’s game. However, the gruff former centre prefers to look to the bigger bodies as he bids to stop Ireland ‘at source’.

“We never go out to target anybody. If you’re going to target anyone, you target the big boys because they’re the guys who lead you round the park.

“If you can put those types of players in the red then your team struggles more. We’ll just go out to play our own game.”

It’s served them pretty well so far.

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Sean Farrell

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