A sharp verbal drop-kick aimed at his South African counterpart Rassie Erasmus’s comments on referees favouring New Zealand was only one element of Hansen’s meeting with the media in Tokyo that could be fairly summarised as “bring it on”.
Hansen was head coach of Wales at the 2003 World Cup, assistant with the All Blacks for the next two – including the win under Graham Henry in 2011 that laid so many bogeys – and the main man when the trophy was retained at Twickenham in 2015.
Erasmus, right, scaled great heights as a player, playing for South Africa in 36 Tests, while Hansen managed a couple of dozen first-class appearances for Canterbury. But Erasmus’s 18 months in charge of the Springboks make him a comparative novice in international coaching, and Hansen was bang in the mood to drum this home, two days before the 99th Test between the great rival countries which provides a blockbuster opening to Pool B in Yokohama.
Erasmus’s gentle wind-up on Wednesday had been that referees had long favoured the All Blacks in 50-50 calls – naturally and deservedly so, the smiling former flanker had insisted, due to their status as the world’s top-ranked side for ten years. Hansen was having none of this back-handed compliment. “It’s pretty obvious what they are trying to do, and whilst I have a lot of respect for South Africa and particularly Rassie, I think he’s a great coach, I don’t agree with what he’s doing,” Hansen said.
“He’s trying to put pressure on the referee [France’s Jerome Garces] externally, and they are under enough pressure already. They don’t need us coaches to be doing what he’s doing. It doesn’t matter who is your ref; you can always find things after the game that they didn’t do and you can get emotional and think they are picking on you and not on the opposition. We have done it ourselves. At the end of the day they do the very best they can and, yes, they don’t get it right all they time, and we’ve suffered from that, just like other teams have.
“It’s a big game and we need to let the referee get on with it and prepare well for him.”
Garces was responsible for two of the four sendings-off sustained by the All Blacks in their entire history – Sonny Bill Williams for a head-high challenge on Anthony Watson in the second Test of the 2017 Lions series, and lock Scott Barrett for another hit to a cranium, of Australia’s Michael Hooper in the 47-26 loss in Perth last month. Although Jones as an onlooker disagreed publicly with the second of those decisions, Hansen did not. So did he think the World Cup’s referees will be able to deal with the Erasmus-style pressure? “Well, they are not stupid people at all, so you’d like to hope so,” Hansen said.
Many a pundit reckons New Zealand’s loss and a draw at home to the Boks in the last year or so (there was also a narrow win in Pretoria) speaks to a new vulnerability but Hansen gave it short shrift: “It’s the same noise we heard last time, you know. Prior to 2015, [people said] Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were too old – it’s just the norm.
“You get two types, I reckon – those who definitely don’t want us to win, because it’s not in their interests. Then the other group that definitely want us to win – they’re all nervous because we haven’t played any games. The sooner we can get this tournament under way, we’ll get rid of all that peripheral noise out there, and pretty meaningless noise it is too.”
Hansen also possibly made a cheekily oblique reference to the travails of Wales’ absent attack coach, Rob Howley, as he added: “Look, if I could pick who’s going to win this tournament, like half the people I’ve read about, I’d be a millionaire. I wouldn’t be sitting here, I’d be off to [New Zealand state bookmaker] the TAB, and give the job up so I could have a punt.
“If both South Africa and ourselves perform really well, there may only be one winner or we may draw again. But if people can see, hey, this team is in the state where it can perform really well, then that will give them a bit of confidence. If we have lost the game by a massive margin, well, look out, there will be hysteria.”