Hansen's openness highlight of 2012 All Blacks
All Blacks - year-enderTOBY ROBSON
Steve Hansen's first year as All Blacks coach was surprisingly good and not just on the field.
When you are standing upon the summit of Everest it doesn't take a genius to work out your options, in terms of the next step, are limited.
And so it was for Hansen, who took over from Graham Henry amidst the post-World Cup euphoria usually accompanied by complacency.
After eight years as an assistant, Hansen clearly had ideas about how things should be done and how they could be done better.
And in those pursuits he has shown himself to be an astute manager of men, both players and public alike.
It's the latter that surprised.
The gruff former policeman engaged the media in a refreshingly straight forward way. Honesty became his mantra.
Answers that left little to the imagination became the norm. His messages to the public were largely the same as those he delivered to his players.
He opened up on the All Blacks mindset like few coaches before him. It was a welcome departure from the cult-like privacy that sometimes cloaks the national rugby side.
That openness extended to selections. Hansen's players knew exactly where they stood and why they were, or were not, being picked and the public knew too.
Selection was a major strength as was the ability to see the bigger picture.
Hansen stuck to his core of senior players, but also managed to introduce nine new caps. It ensured staleness did not creep in and that the ship continued to move forward.
And he reinvigorated his veterans with the goal of playing the game at a new level, one based on speed of phase ball and basic execution of skills.
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter returned to the top of their games, but crucially Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett were progressed as strong test alternatives.
Hansen's methods reaped 12 test wins, one draw and a 38-21 loss to England at Twickenham, a result which brought to an end a 20-match unbeaten run.
The come from behind 36-21 win over South Africa in Soweto was perhaps the most memorable of the season, a reflection of character as much as skill.
The All Blacks were both revolutionary and basic in 2012.
They attempted to play at a pace their opponents could not keep by recycling ball quickly and efficiently at the breakdown.
Forwards were encouraged to handle the ball in order to transfer the contact area to a point wider of the ruck where weaker defenders tend to lurk.
It reaped early reward as weak seams were exploited allowing the All Blacks backs to play against scrambling defences.
Sonny Bill Williams' unstoppable ability to get behind the first line of defence and new halfback Aaron Smith's refreshingly simple and swift pass promised to leave the competition in the dust.
The 60-0 thrashing of Ireland in Hamilton and the 22-0 win over Australia in Auckland were the high points in terms of raising the bar.
But, as is rugby's way, the opposition adapted quickly and caught up by season's end.
Aaron Smith's own dip in form over the final four tests mirrored the opposition's ability to slow the ball at the tackle and pick off the increasingly predictable forward runners.
Smith must add to his option taking after failing to change tack and go up the middle against England, but but can be proud of his fine debut season. He was one of many high performers.
In the pack loose head Tony Woodcock provided the rock upon which the set piece prospered, while lock Sam Whitelock matured and Brodie Retallick made big strides.
McCaw and No 8 Kieran Read were superb in all they did. McCaw's performance against South Africa in Dunedin was memorable, while Read's consistency marked him as his skipper's logical successor.
Loose forward is an area of strength. Liam Messam played the season of his life at blindside, yet will face a big challenge from Victor Vito next year.
In the backs centre Conrad Smith was the pick of the bunch closely followed by wing Cory Jane and fullback Israel Dagg.
Smith's decision making in defence continually snuffed out tries, while his ability to straighten the attack and quickly transfer the ball to his outsides was text book perfect for most of the year.
Jane's skill level was superb whether under the high ball, in close quarters, or beating his man one-on-one, while Dagg continued his upward curve, but is still prone to playing on his own at times.
Julian Savea was the best new comer, with 12 tries in nine tests, a wing blessed with pace and power to rival the great Jonah Lomu.
And Barrett deserves special mention as a player who stepped into the test arena with ease at both first five eighth and fullback.
Hansen's challenge now is to continue to unearth the next generation.
At hooker Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore are among an aging core though Dane Coles made an encouraging start in Europe.
Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick remain works in progress at lock where Ali Williams appears to have run his test race.
Behind props Woodcock and Owen Franks more depth is needed. None of Ben Franks, Wyatt Crockett, or Charlie Faumuina demanded a test start in 2012.
Whatever the reasons, the pack were monstered by England and will face similar tactics when they resume duties next year.
Likewise, midfield is an area of concern. Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith are the first choice with daylight second despite Ben Smith's encouraging effort against Scotland and Tamati Ellison's all round skills.
Overall, it is hard to mark this All Blacks season less than an 8 out of 10.
And with prospects like Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields and Charles Piutau on the horizon, the immediate future under Hansen looks as bright as the present.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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