STEVE Hansen is the most successful coach in international rugby with a win ratio just north of 90 per cent. Under him, the All Blacks have lost just two matches since they lifted the William Webb Ellis Cup back in 2011, one to South Africa at the end of the recent Championship and one to England a couple of years back at Twickenham.
He fielded a reserve side yesterday that Scotland pushed all the way to the line but the All Blacks, to no one’s great surprise, found a way to win just as they had against England last June.
Yesterday, it was a one-point match with six minutes remaining, in June it had been a one-point match with seven minutes left to play and, in Hansen’s own words, New Zealand “picked up the bag and went home”.
The result is usually the same whether it is England or Scotland that plays the Blacks, the difference comes after the game has finished. At Twickenham, Hansen lobbed a grenade at his beleaguered counterpart Stuart Lancaster, arguing that England had reverted to type and gone back to route-one rugby in an attempt to bully their way to victory, never mind that the Springboks have earned a decent living doing just that for over a century now.
After the Scotland match, Hansen could not have been more gracious to the gallant losers, “an up and coming team”, “a very good side”, “on the way up”, “they defended really well”. Why the difference in attitude?
The answer is that England pose a threat to New Zealand at next year’s World Cup in a way that Scotland simply do not. It matters little how many Championships or “friendlies” his side win, only come the RWC 2015 will Hansen be judged as an All Black coach – and he is desperate to emulate his friend and mentor Graham Henry, who led New Zealand to success in RWC 2011.
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Ignore the hysteria from the press down south, England will be a force next year. Remember that Lancaster was stripped of several of his best players, including an entire front five forward platform: Alex Corbisiero, possibly the best loosehead prop on the planet, Joe Launchbury, Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Dan Cole. That is a lot of muscle to miss. Moreover, Lancaster was unable to call upon Manu Tuilagi or Luther Burrell in the midfield, which is one of the reasons that England looked a little one-dimensional with the ball in hand.
Before the big one kicks off, Lancaster will be able to call upon “Slammin” Sam Burgess who is six feet, five inches and seventeen stones of unbridled attitude, with an almost messianic determination to take the game to the opposition regardless of who that opposition is, which is exactly what Lancaster and England need.
England will be contenders and, if they can top their pool, they are not scheduled to meet the All Blacks or the Springboks until the final. In contrast, the Scots are realistically aiming at a place in the quarter-finals and, after failing to get that far in New Zealand three years ago, they will be happy enough to make the knock-out stages next year.
For all their bravery on Saturday, the Scots are still some way shy of competing with the best in the world. Last year, Ireland almost beat the full All Black side, this month they went one better against the Bokke. Scotland are an improving side but they are starting from a lowly base.
There are weaknesses still in the first and third row of the scrum. When Euan Murray departed the action yesterday, the set scrum creaked horribly and, while New Zealand did not hold the ball at the No 8’s feet to exploit the weakness, other teams are not so charitable.
The back three pose a potent threat but any hopes of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett putting together a winning midfield combination were undermined by the latter’s hamstring injury on Saturday. Bennett looks like he will miss the Tongan Test in his own backyard of Kilmarnock.
Cotter will anyway look to freshen up the side with one or two additions, but the coach cannot afford to tinker too much because Scotland do not have a lot of strength in depth in many positions and next Saturday’s opposition pose a very real threat.
While Scotland were pushing the Blacks to the finish line, Tonga saw off the USA Eagles by 40-12 at Gloucester’s Kingsholm stadium, a far more convincing win than Scotland managed in the summer.
Cotter has done good things and Scotland are a growing threat in world rugby but they can’t consider themselves as contenders until Hansen insults them after a game rather than heaps praise upon their heads.
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