WELLINGTON: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is expecting a considerable backlash by the British & Irish Lions in the second Test at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday as the tourists attempt to square the series.
The Lions put in a spirited display in the first half of the opening instalment on Saturday in Auckland, only to be completely out-muscled and worn down by a ruthlessly efficient team in the second half, the final score being 30-15 in New Zealand’s favour.
They will be smarting from the fact that they converted only two of a number of several try-scoring opportunities, while the All Blacks, typically, made the most of all of theirs.
From reports emanating from the Lions’ camp, they will looking to bring a tighter, more physical approach into the game, on what is expected to be a wet night in Wellington. A primary focus will be retaining or spoiling opposition ball at the breakdown, thereby slowing down the devastating pace at which the home side are able to play.
“It’s going to be a great game, I'm really looking forward to it. I love these types of Test matches because they really challenge you, as a coaching group and as a team,” Hansen said.
“It’s got all the hallmarks of being another great Test and that’s what we’re here for. Our game (rugby in general) is way more important than all of us. If we can produce the game that has ebbs and flows in it, we’ll get more people excited about watching it and more people involved in it - and our game stays alive,” he said.
Given his remarks, Hansen was clearly keen to hype the game up, from a neutral point of view, suggesting that a Lions’ win was indeed possible: “Everyone has to step up and if we don’t step up, we’ll get second.
“Every Lions team with the talent they have at their disposal is going to be hard to beat, it just comes down to who plays well enough on the day. We’ve got a talented side and if we prepare well, really genuinely bone-deep, then we’re hard to beat - and they’re no different, they’ve got plenty of good players.
“How they choose to play with that talent will be the interesting thing,” he said.
Hansen could well be referring to Gatland’s choice of the players on the bench, many of whom are unlucky not to start a Test yet. An example is SA-born Irish dynamo, CJ Stander, who could arguably give the All Blacks problems both at the breakdown and in the loose, but he will have to come on early to make a difference.
Meanwhile, changes to the All Blacks have been forced by the injury to fullback Ben Smith, with Hurricanes inside centre, Ngani Laumape, named to make his All Blacks debut, as a replacement.
Hansen said Laumape had left the home selectors with little option, after the centre’s game against the Lions for the Hurricanes on Tuesday. Hansen observed that Laumape had carried his outstanding Super Rugby form into a high-intensity game, against a good international side, proving that he was ready for the promotion to the highest level.
“It was a wonderful game and he contributed to it a lot, so he made it pretty simple (for us as selectors),” he said.
Hansen admired Laumape’s speed, tackling and good off-loading ability, allied to his big-match temperament and finishing skills.
There had been consideration of playing Beauden Barrett at fullback, but the desire to have the Hurricanes pivot dictate play from flyhalf prevailed.
Hansen said he had been disappointed with the New Zealand Herald’s cartoon depiction of Lions coach Warren Gatland (as a clown). He defended previous exchanges between the two coaches, via the media, as a “bit of banter”, while admonishing those scribes present.
He added: “You guys (journalists) beef it to make it something bigger than it really is … I’ve heard you say I don’t like him and we won’t have a beer.
“I've got a lot of respect for him, I think he’s a good coach. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Lions and they’re a good team.
“To come out and do that, you’re ridiculing someone who doesn’t deserve it. At the end of the day, we’re all coaches trying to do what we think is right.
“Sometimes people don’t always agree with what we do and that’s okay, you’re allowed to have an opinion, but to ridicule someone is not right and a bit disappointing,” he lamented.
If anything, Hansen has to be given credit for being a gentleman and trying to instill some journalistic integrity in what can sometimes be a hostile press contingent, especially for touring teams to either of the two trans-Tasman rugby giants.