Hansen plays a cagey game with the Wallabies

PLOTTING: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, centre, chats with his coaching team in Auckland before jetting out to Sydney.
PLOTTING: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, centre, chats with his coaching team in Auckland before jetting out to Sydney.

When Steve Hansen starts in with the verbals you know something big is on the horizon.

So, when the All Blacks coach yesterday fired a couple of well-chosen shots across the bows of camp Wallaby ahead of tomorrow night's Bledisloe and Rugby Championship opener in Sydney, it indicated something special could be in store.

If the All Blacks are to rattle up that record 18th straight test victory, and put one hand on retaining the Bledisloe for an 11th straight year, then it just may be that they are going to have to dig deep to do so. Hansen's edginess certainly suggests so.

Whether Hansen is a little annoyed by the growing confidence flowing around a Wallabies outfit that's won just two of its last 20 tests against the All Blacks, or if he's unnerved by what's being talked up as a renaissance in the Australian game, the All Blacks coach was certainly not holding back yesterday.

At a press conference dominated initially by clarification of Israel Dagg's axing and Ben Smith's promotion as first choice No 15, Hansen then delved into murky territory when asked for his thoughts on Ewen McKenzie's decision to start Kurtley Beale at No 10, ahead of his well-performed Waratahs team-mate Bernard Foley.

The All Blacks coach's response would surely have raised a few heckles, and eyebrows, among the Wallabies, and knowing Hansen that would probably have been his intention. It might well be the first stage of a concerted plan to knock the enigmatic Beale off his stride.

He didn't spend eight years as Graham Henry's No 2 without learning a few tricks of the game before the game, and there's no doubt Hansen revels in the practice of setting an agenda via the media.

After saying he had been "dumbfounded" by Beale's selection initially, Hansen continued: "I thought why would he [McKenzie] do that, and came to the conclusion that maybe Ewen doesn't trust [Bernard Foley] to be able to do what he wants against us, or if you really think about it the other guy is under contract and league are chasing him, so you might start thinking maybe the ARU have told him he's got to pick him.

"But both are really good rugby players, and Kurtley is certainly a guy who loves to do things differently. He'll throw a lot of inside balls to runners, and we're going to have to look after that part of the park.

"He's not as good a goalkicker as Foley, but I guess he'll [McKenzie] bring Foley on late in the game and if they want a goalkicker they've got the right one on at the right end of the game."

Then it really got interesting.

"No", Hansen wouldn't pick a player if directed to by his union. And he "didn't know" if McKenzie had been directed to.

But wasn't Hansen making that assertion?

"No, I'm making an assumption which is different than an assertion. I'm not saying that's what happened, I'm just sitting there pondering why wouldn't you play Foley when he's played there all year?

"The other guy has played seven tests at most in his whole career at first-five so why would you change that? I'm not saying that's exactly what happened, it's just a thought that came through my head and I'm sure it's come through a few other people's."

The All Blacks coach also couldn't resist another dig at the Wallabies when the opportunity arose.

"They're under a lot of pressure which they're talking about having to win the Bledisloe Cup. They haven't won the Bledisloe Cup, this is our year ... I find that interesting. It's no different than any other year. There are two teams in the competition and one of them will win it and one of them will lose it. They'll look to run the ball and try to run us off our feet."

There's belief in the Wallabies, never mind their atrocious record of the last decade. But there's also a steel about the All Blacks this week, exhibited by Hansen's ice-cold demotion of Israel Dagg.

The coach means business, and so does his history-seeking team.