What must Steve Hansen hope to achieve in 2018
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 24: All Black coach Steve Hansen (L) and Gilbert Enoka during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Forsyth Barr stadium on August 24, 2017 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

With a Test series against France only weeks away, the talk around New Zealand Rugby is; what must Steve Hansen hope to achieve in 2018. Not necessarily a question, but a view on the aspirations and goals for the next month/six months and then looking towards a Rugby World Cup in September 2019.

On Sunday, Steve Hansen names his 33 player group who will assemble on Monday, to prepare for the Steinlager Test Series. Hansen has elected to take his All Blacks out of Super Rugby action and assemble them for a three day-preparation camp, that follows on from earlier single day sessions.

His goals for the squad, and also for the All Blacks style of play, is certainly critical to the success of the team in 2018. Critical to success further down the line too. The next three International games against Les Bleus will achieve some of that. And then the next 11 games achieve more so.

it is all a planned formula, that Hansen and his coaching panel have developed before this point.

Those assumptions are generally of how he has prepared. But what are the objectives, and the possible goals which Hansen might want to achieve before September 2019?

What must Steve Hansen hope to achieve in 2018

  1. Finalize his third and fourth-pick half backs
  2. Lead a succession plan for number eight; if considering Kieran Read might not return
  3. Form an outside back group who can all perform various roles
  4. Instil a dominant mindset that continues the 90% win ratio
  5. Make contingencies for all possible scenarios/back-up plans

And how the coaching group and players buy-in to those ideals, is very important in 2018. Teams can often success ‘on the field’ but Hansen and the modern psyche of coaching is to plan ahead, implement now and then…..pat yourself on the back later.

You won’t see Steve Hansen or Ian Foster smiling that much in 2018. Of course, they enjoy banter with players and the famous dry wit of Hansen will shine through. But having experience the solemn glare of a table of All Black coaches looking towards a media scrum, they have ‘more important things to do’.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen (l) attends a New Zealand All Blacks training on November 9, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Find his third and fourth pick half backs

If Hansen had trouble pronouncing Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (TTT) as a player’s name, then the All Blacks must show clarity in player selection at half back. Since the departure of Tawera Kerr-Barlow, the vacant ‘third halfback’ role sign has been up.

Having the best half back is fundamental. Having one who is in synch with both forwards and backs is second, and then having back-up is the next most important factor. Take away Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara – who is now the equal of Smith – and Hansen needs to focus on the third factor.

Fitness will play a part, with Perenara only just returning to the field. And the older legs of Smith might need a rest or two. So, does he pick experience? Augustine Pulu and Brad Weber are the two best who qualify. Or do they go for form? TTT and Bryn Hall can then be choices.

Add in Kane Hammington and Mitchell Drummond, who could be involved for two World Cup cycles or more, and that makes six players to choose from.

  • Probables: Brad Weber and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
  • Possible: Augu Pulu and Bryn Hall
  • Apprentice: Kane Hammington [although this removes both Highlanders players]

The apprentice role was made famous by Ardie Savea. It meant the All Blacks could include one extra player, and if the forwards/backs split is 19/14 then Hansen might call on an apprentice to take on some learnings.

Lead a succession plan for number eight; if Kieran Read cannot return

Kieran Read is set to play either more club rugby, or be a member of the Crusaders team who play in the World Series Rugby match and/or, play a French XV. That is good news, but if he were not able to then recover from back surgery, succession planning needs to start now.

Liam Squire must be on track to play for the Highlanders, which should ensure his candidacy [dependent on fitness*]. He seems to have the right body shape and is an imposing figure. Luke Whitelock is a more stable selection; in the style of Read. While Akira Ioane is the more flamboyant, a Zinzan Brooke-model. All three offer positives, but two are not the finished International article – so to combat the French, Whitelock seems the best candidate.

But at 22, Ioane offers the coaching group longterm prospects….if he meets their standards. Currently a prospect, but a rough diamond. So if the selectors are looking for a more polished model, they might favour the form of Jordan Taufua.

A blunt-nosed runner, he could be the charging force which is needed more to restrain the French. He also has an endorsement by Read – that could be a vote of confidence Hansen adheres.

  • Probables: Whitelock and Squire*
  • Possible: Ioane and Squire*                            
  • Bolter: Taufua included as loose forward cover

Note: Wyatt Crockett has made himself available, if the fitness of props is in jeopardy. That could also point to future problems, so a Crockett ‘stop-gap’ measure could be likely. And a succession plan implemented for the front row.

Form an outside back group who can all perform various roles

You might say ‘this has already been formed’ over the 2017 season. But with both form and function requiring adjustments, the entire group cannot be selected in one squad alone. The core group may only be four or five players selected, although the outside backs to choose from must virtually be the form players in the competition.

Remember, Hansen and co are very loyal. That has been proven over time, so while Julian Savea may not be shining now, within that group he can always reach a higher level. So established players are to be considered, somewhat ahead of form.

By rights though, the form back is no doubt Ben Lam. And while he has been involved in the All Black Sevens program, this maybe his first selection in the national XVs side. So that could count against him. Not being able to likely ‘experiment’ that much could be a consideration too – although, if not now then, is The Rugby Championship any different?

Four or five maximum number of Outside Backs?

The balance could be affected by half back numbers, first-five or second-five selections. Possibly, they may choose just three centers; as many of the outside backs can cover number 13. Jordie Barrett has been a cover in the Hurricanes for this entire season, so that could play in his favour. But so too can Ben Smith, as well as Rieko Ioane. The variations are a benefit, but also an inhibitor. As well, do you pick an specialist winger?

Savea plays best on the left wing, but Lam is playing fantastically there now. So who adds more versatility? Could Matt Duffie be considered ahead of them both, as he covers three positions? Then, you could live with only four backs. Hansen could include another center; Anton Lienert-Brown who…. can cover wing.

But the longterm means that any man chosen now, must also be present in September 2019. So form is fleeting. Skill and all round performance is permanent – Israel Dagg is the proof of that. So the 2018 selectors will probably stay loyal, and they might pick four backs to boost the midfield.

  • Probables: Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith and Matt Duffie (Nehe Milner-Skudder on standby)
  • Possible (5): Ioane, Milner-Skudder, Smith, Naholo and debutante Ben Lam

Instil a dominant mindset that continues the 90% win ratio

After the two formation days, Steve Hansen commented that it was “95 per cent talking and about 5 per cent doing.” All that will change, as the test series draws closer. Systems written down, will need to be implemented on the training field. So from Monday May 21, he will be able to instil a dominant mindset that has been established.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen (l) attends a New Zealand All Blacks training session at the Rugby Club Suresnois on November 9, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

The mindset that the team have core structures, roles and tools at the ready. Players know their core duties – as a man, or a group; forwards/tight five/loose trio. So individually and collectively, the 33 men can begin to continue the winning culture developed since 2012.

Over that term, winning is second nature. Not something that every side can boast, but close to an 90% ration means that the odd time they find themselves on the back foot, they are confident they can win. Not shocked or dissuaded from their goals. And in the three Test series, the goals will be to be authoritative, and be forthright.

Make contingencies for all possible scenarios/back-up plans

The second-equal worst team for yellow cards, is the All Black team. No hiding away from it. For 50% of the games played in 2017, they had 14 men on the park at one time or another. Important men too; Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett. Each had to sit in the ‘naughty chair’.

How can a team not have to make contingencies, if they are going to be penalized. And that is not counting a Red card offense. One which Sonny Bill Williams worked hard to even-out, but it was still not an All Blacks season he would be all too pleased with.

During the All Black training camps, Hansen could make a point of it. He might want to use reverse psychology – when ‘we get a yellow card’ – to signify that the whole team is affected. And the whole team must react. Substitutes are made. Mind you, the look on Jerome Kaino’s face when Ngani Laumape replaced him in the British and Irish Lions second test, showed how contingencies are not going to please everybody.

Cause and effect; contingencies are more important in Test rugby.

So a forward is disciplined. That might mean a back is subbed-off to complete set-piece. If a back is sent to the bin, then a forward maybe subbed to boost the midfield. And if two players are sent from the field, then the coaches box must have a plan which the players are familiar with.

All possible injury scenarios are also considered. Beauden Barrett might have to play half back. So the fullback comes into first receiver, or set moves are utilized; a loose forward operates from the base of the ruck, ensuring the backline is kept to a full compliment. With the change in ‘golden oldie’ scrum laws, a subbed forward maybe required to return to the field, so leaving the field does not always mean ‘switching off’.

What must Steve Hansen hope to achieve in 2018

As a statement, Hansen and his coaching group want five core topics resolved. Selection aside, continuance of their high standards is a fait accompli. Not discounting how important an test series win is, the squad is looking at the bigger picture; than just at the French challenge.

What is clear, is that the All Blacks preparation takes priority over Super Rugby. And it will affect teams like the Chiefs and the Highlanders (who must leave players in new Zealand). “Everyone has to take a hit. The rugby union (NZ Rugby) itself has to take one, and by that I mean with the three-day camps we are going to name the All Blacks early,” Hansen to media in March.

“We didn’t want to take 50 players out of Super Rugby at that point, it just wouldn’t have worked. So we are just taking those that are going to be in the squad.”

But they have. And the benefits will be seen in 2018, and hopefully have a flow-on to the end of year tour, to the shortened Internationals in 2019, and importantly towards the Rugby World Cup.

Do it right in 2018, then he will be applauded. They learned much from the fiasco of ‘rest and rotation’. This plan might very well be the better option, on the road to 2019.

 

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