Beating Australia over three Tests this year to extend their grip on the Bledisloe Cup to a 12th year is more important to New Zealand than winning the Rugby Championship, says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
Upping the ante on the eve of this morning’s Rugby Championship opener, Hansen said the world champions had a “mental edge” over the Wallabies and new Australia coach Ewen McKenzie had a problem if he was not feeling the pressure.
The trans-Tasman Sea rivals will play two more Tests this year, another in the Rugby Championship in Wellington next week and a third Bledisloe Cup encounter in Dunedin in October.
The Wallabies will need to win two of the three Tests to bring the Bledisloe Cup back to Australia, something Hansen said the All Blacks would not allow lightly. “The Bledisloe ranks just behind the World Cup, it’s something special and we know it’s special to the Australians so we’re expecting a hell of a battle tomorrow night,” he said at the Olympic Stadium yesterday.
Since the All Blacks won the Bledisloe Cup back from Australia in 2003, New Zealand have won 21 of 27 Tests between the countries with one draw in Brisbane last year.
“When you win as consistently as we have, it does put doubts in people’s minds,” said Hansen, who led the All Blacks to the inaugural Rugby Championship title last year. “But each contest is its own in its own right, and you’ve got to earn the right to keep that mental edge, otherwise they’ll come in and do the job.”
Hansen appears determined to engage in a war of words with McKenzie and once again tore into the Australian’s decision to pick Matt Toomua at fly-half instead of his former charge at the Queensland Reds, Quade Cooper.
“He’s been coaching Quade Cooper for a long time and to not pick a guy that you’ve publicly said you’d pick him if you were the coach, of course he agonised over it,” he said. “I read today he’s not feeling the pressure but we all do, if you’re not feeling the pressure, if you can’t admit that, you’ve got a few problems.”
McKenzie had responded jovially to Hansen’s initial suggestion that he had delayed the naming of his side because of the fly-half decision. “I was getting worried that Steve wasn’t coming over, he’s been so quiet, but I’m glad he’s concerned about my welfare,” he said.
“When you coach the All Blacks, there’s a lot of pressure in that job,” he added. “When the All Blacks lose, as rare as it is, it’s attached to the national economy. The dollar might go up and down over there.”
One man not given to mind games is New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, who returns today to win his 117th cap in his first full match at the top level since taking a six-month sabbatical. The fact that his last international outing, against England at Twickenham last year, resulted in only the 13th defeat of his Test career can only sharpen his appetite for the contest. “I feel mentally in a good shape and I’ve done a lot of training,” he said. “Nothing equates to test match rugby so I’ve just got to make sure I do the job I’ve got to do.”
Meanwhile, Australia prop James Slipper is still not sure what impact new scrum laws will have this weekend but is certain that every single Wallaby will need to play out of their skins to beat their “little cousins” New Zealand.
Like all the front row forwards in the Rugby Championship, loosehead Slipper will step into the unknown when he packs down for the first set scrum against the All Blacks. The main impact of the new laws, aimed at reducing the number of re-sets and penalties at the set piece, is expected to be the removal of the intimidating “big hit” with which the front rows have come together in recent years.
Slipper foresees something of a return to the days of hooking hookers and front row wrestling. “I packed my first scrum under the new rules last week so I’m reasonably new to it and most of the boys are,” Slipper said.
“There’s no way we’ve got it at par at the moment but we’re working hard at it. It’s got to be a stable scrum, so what that does is bring the hooking back again and that means the defensive scrum can really have a crack at the team with the ball. So I guess it’s back to the old school, which is good.”
Slipper’s return to the Wallabies starting XV for the first time in eight Tests came after his former Queensland Reds coach McKenzie won the Australia job. McKenzie controversially dumped stalwart loosehead Benn Robinson from his squad and brought in Slipper with Scott Sio as back-up on the bench.