'Chokers': Former All Blacks coach brings Ireland back down to earth
SPOTLIGHT: With unbeaten Six Nations and November campaigns and a series victory in New Zealand under their belts inside the last 12 months, there’s no question Ireland have earned their status as the top-ranked side heading into this year’s Rugby World Cup.
But Steve Hansen, a two-time winner of the tournament in 2015 (head coach) and 2011 (assistant coach) with the All Blacks, insists the ‘world No.1’ tag brings with it a pressure that will be Ireland’s cross to bear as they look to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time.
Andy Farrell’s side secured a Six Nations Grand Slam on Saturday, their first in the championship since 2018, courtesy of a 29-16 win over England in Dublin.
But when it comes to the World Cup, historically Ireland have struggled, and they are yet to reach the semifinals in eight attempts at rugby’s greatest prize – and Hansen believes that regardless of their impressive form, clearing that particular hurdle will not be something Ireland are taking lightly.
“Ireland were good throughout the Six Nations,” he said. “In that final game they started off a bit shaky and England rattled them a bit, but once the red card came it was game over and they were good enough to take advantage of it.
“They’re going well, ranked No.1 in the world, and they’ve had a great year so far.
“Every time a team is number one in the world, you’ve got to consider them to be a World Cup contender – but it’s a tough tournament to win, and they were No.1 going into the last one, weren’t they?
“So, they’ve seemed to struggle a little bit at World Cups. If it was the All Blacks, they’d probably be called ‘chokers’.
“But they’ve come a long way, they believe in themselves, and they’re a very good side, so they’re definitely a contender. But they’ll have to overcome the pressure of not having gone past the quarterfinals before, and there’ll be a lot of pressure involved in that.
“If they get through to the semifinals, then they’re in new territory. That’s something they’ll have to deal with that they’ve never dealt with before, and it’s always hard to deal with something you haven’t dealt with before.”
The first nation to win the Men’s and U20s Grand Slam titles in the same year! 🙌#TeamOfUs | #IrishRugby pic.twitter.com/j823rEIJPw
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 19, 2023
With Ireland and hosts France the front-runners to lift the World Cup, Hansen’s former side New Zealand are flying somewhat under the radar this year – but he has warned the All Blacks’ critics to write Ian Foster’s side off at their peril.
He added: “Beware an All Black team that’s not considered ‘good enough’ to be winners of the World Cup – because that can come back and bite you.”
Since leaving his post as New Zealand head coach in 2019, Hansen has been working as a consultant with Japanese Top League outfit Toyota Verblitz.
But 2023 marks a return to the world stage for the 63-year-old, with Hansen set to lead the World XV which will face Eddie Jones’ Barbarians side at Twickenham on Sunday, May 28.
A string of rugby’s most exciting players – including Semi Radradra, Marika Koroibete and Ngani Laumape – have all been confirmed to be appearing for the World XV, and Hansen admits he cannot wait to return to Twickenham for what is set to be an epic clash.
“Like many Fijian players, Semi’s strong, fast, and a good athlete,” he said. “Fijians always just naturally know how to play footy. They love the running aspects of the game, and they play a lot of Sevens, so they’re highly skilled and always brings that bit of x-factor.
“I know a lot about Ngani from his All Black days. Before he had a little injury [in Japan] he was playing outstanding rugby. Marika is just a wonderful player; lots of energy and he works for 80 minutes.
“So, I’m just really looking forward to working with them all, and excited about the game because it’s going to be played in the right manner.
“Traditionally, you want a Barbarians game to be open and flowing, and a World XV game is the same. This event gets you a combination of both those teams – and both coaches will treat it with the respect that it deserves.
“Whilst both sides will have a little bit of fun during the week, come Saturday they’ll have the freedom to express themselves and pour it out on the park. I’m sure we’ll see a wonderfully high-skilled spectacle that hopefully people will come along and really, really enjoy.”