Five key questions Hansen and the All Blacks face ahead of RWC 2019

Alex Broun 10/07/2017
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All Blacks captain Kieran Read will turn 34 before the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

After the high of a thrilling Lions series the All Blacks now face the tough task of raising themselves for the considerably lesser challenges ahead.

Steve Hansen’s team, and Hansen himself, will be bitterly stung after failing to claim the Lions scalp, despite the undoubted feel-good factor of a shared series.

The trick for Hansen will be to harness that disappointment and turn it into anger to be channeled against the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas when the All Blacks take to the field again on August 19.

Here are the five big questions Hansen and the All Blacks face:

Apathy is the enemy

The All Blacks were on an emotional high during the historic Lions series, which many players rightly saw as a career highlight.

A Lions tour only comes around every 12 years whereas Tests against the Wallabies have become monotonous, up to four a year, and very rarely are the All Blacks challenged.

The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe, contested between Australia and New Zealand, since 2003 and since 2012 the two teams have met 15 times with Australia winning just once.

The Wallabies have been very poor since May last year, winning just 44 per cent of their matches and slipping from No2 in the world to No4. Australian teams in Super Rugby have been disastrous with New Zealand Super Rugby sides holding a 23-0 record over their antipodean rivals this season.

The ABs will be unbackable favourites to win the Bledisloe 3-0 and after the excitement of the Lions series, it will be very hard for Hansen to get his team up for such a ‘contest’.

The All Blacks should win the Bledisloe 3-0.

The All Blacks should win the Bledisloe 3-0.

Aura of invincibility cracks

After being regarded as invincible since their 2015 RWC triumph, the All Blacks looked decidedly beatable in this Test series.

Reduced to 14 men in Wellington, they went tryless and leaked tries themselves while in Auckland in the decider they had the Lions on the ropes but could not finish them off.

They made 15 very un-All Blacks handling errors in that match alone, three in try-scoring opportunities.

The Lions players from this series, especially the younger generation such as Maro Itoje, Liam Williams, Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell, Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler will now have great confidence that they can match the All Blacks and even beat them, especially at home.

England and New Zealand look set to face a showdown in the 2019 RWC semi-finals and after this Lions series there will be a lot of belief among the young Englishmen that they can best team NZ.

The All Blacks looked beatable during the Lions series.

The trouble with SBW

Hansen has a big dilemma in his very famous centre Sonny Bill Williams. If he doesn’t get sent off in the second Test for a shoulder to Watson’s head then the All Blacks probably win the match and the series.

The red card changed the momentum of the series and gave the Lions a chance.

Ngani Laumape, who came in for Williams, showed he deserves more time at Test level and Ryan Crotty may be back from his hamstring injury in time for Bledisloe 1.

So does Hansen punish Williams or will he forgive and forget and re-instate him to the starting line up? The fallout will be huge either way. A real dilemma for Hansen.

Sonny Bill Williams.

Sonny Bill Williams.

Protecting his legacy

Hansen was deeply crestfallen after the drawn Test in Auckland.

In terms of his own career, a Lions series victory was meant to be the crowning achievement after successfully retaining the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015.

Whatever he does now – even going on to win the RWC in Japan in 2019 – he can never wipe out the stain of failing to defeat the Lions. How Hansen will deal with this is crucial.

Does he let it eat away at him and undermine his confidence or does he use it to re-stoke the fire and take revenge against Wales, Scotland, Ireland and especially England over the next two years?

Steve Hansen.

Steve Hansen.

Squad re-generation

It was noticeable during this Lions series just how much the All Blacks relied on their older players.

The ABs never recovered when Jerome Kaino went off in Wellington due to Williams’ dismissal in Wellington and they were never able to make up for the absence of full-back Ben Smith, who was injured in the first Test.

Kaino is 34 and will be 36 by 2019, Smith will be 33, Dane Coles 32, Wyatt Crockett 36 and captain Kieran Read 34.

Rugby is more and more a young man’s game. Managing these players, finding suitable replacements and knowing when to transition will be a massive job for Hansen.

Jerome Kaino will be 36 at the next Rugby World Cup.

Jerome Kaino will be 36 at the next Rugby World Cup.

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Gatland, Barretts among winners from from All Blacks and British & Irish Lions draw

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Share of the spoils: Kieran Read and Sam Warburton

After 240-minutes of high-octane rugby, nothing could separate the All Blacks and British & Irish Lions.

It is just the second time the Lions have drawn a series and though there was an anti-climactic feel at Eden Park when the full-time whistle went, both sides emerged with heaps of credit.

We tease out the five talking points with an eye to the future in mind – it’s just a shame we will have to wait 12 years for the next episode of this particular rivalry.

The Lions are dead, long live the Lions

This tour may be in the history books but it will certainly be preserved for posterity.

It has been a huge success, showing that a group of players who were thrown into action just three days after landing in New Zealand can represent a fabled concept so well – and take so much pride in it.

Even with the realignment of the rugby calendar and health issues in the spotlight, surely the Lions will survive.

A knock on both sides

It was one of the most pulsating, helter-skelter, edge-of-the-seat Test matches of all-time – but it certainly was not the most accurate.

The All Blacks committed 11 knock-ons and the Lions were hardly better, coming in with a costly nine.

Compare that to the second Test, in which the teams conceded five handling errors apiece in often torrential conditions. Both camps will be thinking of what could have been.

Welsh wonders

Gatland has had to deal with charges of Welsh favouritism ever since he announced his team, but his decisions have been fully justified.

Taulupe Faletau’s all-action displays softened the loss of Billy Vunipola while Liam Williams brought some excitement to the backs, and Jonathan Davies was arguably the man of the tour at outside centre.

The much-maligned duo of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, thought of as both off-form ahead of the second Test, did much of the unseen work in stopping New Zealand’s quick ball.

The future is Barrett

Welcome to Test rugby, Jordie Barrett – it looks like we’ll be seeing quite a lot of you in the next decade.

The 20-year-old was sensational on debut, in a Lions series decider no less, knocking down his brother’s kick for Ngani Laumape’s try before getting over himself.

He and elder brother Beauden have an almost telepathic understanding. Rieko Ioane (2) and Laumape also scored in the series on their full starts. The All Blacks should be alright going forward…

Jordie Barrett of the All Blacks scores his sides second try

Gatland passes audition

If Warren Gatland had designs on the All Blacks job, he had to shake off his reputation for one-dimensional rugby while also forging a side that could compete with the world’s best. Both boxes have been ticked.

The Lions’ attack grew into the tour, while their rush defence for the most part put the shackles on their hosts.

He is still an outsider to take over after the 2019 World Cup – up against All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster – but he’s given himself hope.

Head coach Steve Hansen talks with head coach Warren Gatland

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A crazy All Blacks and Lions Test blighted by one red card, countless errors and an unlikely winner

Alex Broun 1/07/2017
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Finally poised: The Lions win sets-up next week's decider in Auckland.

To paraphrase Dickens: “It was the best of tests, it was the worst of Tests.”

It was hard to decide whether you were witnessing one of the greatest tests of all times or one of the worst, such was the haphazard nature of this crazy match.

When Sonny Bill Williams was rightly red carded after just 24 minutes on a wet night in Wellington you expected the Lions to grind out a victory against the 14-man All Blacks. But instead it was the world champions who went against type, keeping it tight, picking and driving and kicking the Lions into submission.

Fly half Beauden Barrett knocked over seven penalty goals and he missed another three which would have given the home team the Test and the series. But the Lions kept the All Blacks try less, for the first time since 2014, and they also brought to an end an undefeated streak in New Zealand that stretched back 47 Tests to September 2009.

The curious thing was the Lions only had to play for two and a half minutes to do it – all coming in the last quarter of the match. Two minutes was all it took to grab two tries – a strong finish by Toby Faletau and a quick snipe by Conor Murray – and the other thirty seconds was for replacement prop Kyle Sinckler to fortuitously win the penalty that Farrell converted to win the Test.

Lions' Anthony Johnson tackles All Blacks' Israel Dagg.

Lions’ Anthony Johnson tackles All Blacks’ Israel Dagg.

For the rest of the match the Lions were pretty dreadful, doing everything they possibly could to lose– even though they were up against just 14 men. They gave away 13 penalties – seven in a row in the second half – with Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola both guilty numerous times, Vunipola also earning a yellow card for a mindless clear out on Barrett.

If the shocking discipline wasn’t enough of an advantage to give to the All Blacks, the Lions also lost two lineouts, one scrum, missed 11 tackles, conceded 11 turnovers, made six handling errors, kicked over the dead ball twice and had just 39 per cent of possession and 42 per cent of territory.But somehow the tourists found a way to win against a disjointed All Blacks that truth be told looked out of sorts even before SBW was sent off.

The red card will be the key talking point of the match and credit must go to Jerome Garces for following World Rugby’s directions about head contact and standing his ground to send off one of the most famous rugby players in the world in one of the most eagerly awaited tests in years. Many other refs would have bottled it but Garces had no hesitation although he instantly made himself the most hated man in New Zealand – and the Kiwis have long memories, just ask Wayne Barnes.

Sonny Bill William getting his marching orders.

Sonny Bill William getting his marching orders.

In the same situation would Craig Joubert also have shown red? Referee’s assistant Jaco Peyper, who refereed the first Test, started to try to talk Garces down to yellow but the Frenchman was having none of it.

The credit for the victory must go to the Lions players, many of whom were outstanding – Faletau, Sean O’Brien and Jamie George – and Courtney Lawes and Sinckler coming off the bench had a notable impact.

But most credit much go to the recently maligned Lions coach Warren Gatland who risked it all on an attacking approach starting Johnny Sexton and Farrell together, which eventually paid off in the final hectic minutes. Gatland also put his faith in two of his Wales stalwarts – Alun Wyn Jones and captain Sam Warburton – and both delivered for their coach.

Wyn Jones was vastly improved on his limp first Test effort and Warburton did exactly what he was asked to do – disrupt the breakdowns and slow the All Blacks ball down. Never have I seen such slow ball for the All Blacks and often scrum half Aaron Smith was forced to wait up to five seconds to clear the ball. That hesitation made New Zealand easier to contain.

It was a great result for rugby and a result the tour desperately needed. The interest (and ratings) in the decider next week will now skyrocket. And now the Lions must do it all again and defeat the All Blacks at a venue where they have haven’t lost for 23 years.

After this madcap Test good luck to any one picking a winner.

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