Hansen needs NZRU tick of approval for ABs

HARD CALLS: Steve Hansen will have to leave the final say on his All Blacks squad up to the NZRU.
HARD CALLS: Steve Hansen will have to leave the final say on his All Blacks squad up to the NZRU.

Even the All Blacks coach has to go cap in hand to his board sometimes, and that appears to be the case for Steve Hansen heading into the three June tests against France.

Hansen couldn't confirm at the end of his three-day training camp in Mount Maunganui yesterday how many players he would include in his squad that will be named in Auckland on Sunday afternoon.

That's because what Hansen wants, and what he gets may end up being two different things, depending on what the New Zealand Rugby Union's board decides it can afford.

Hansen would clearly like to carry as many players as he can in his squad to face the French, both to lighten loads on some in this busy part of the season, and to build his depth heading into the more serious business of the Rugby Championship later in the year.

The All Blacks coach said the number in his squad would only be decided at an NZRU board meeting today, but he confirmed his names were all written in, pending their physical state after the final round of Super Rugby before the June break.

Asked how many he would like to have in his squad to meet the French in Auckland, Christchurch and New Plymouth, Hansen smiled and said: "We won't go there - that's a sneaky question."

The size of All Blacks squads has long been a bone of contention between coaches and employers, with the paymasters having to factor in the significant extra cost in adding additional players.

But Hansen said yesterday he was comfortable where he was at heading into the French series, after the two training camps - a "necessary curse", was how he tagged them - enabling a "really good head start" heading into the start of preparations next Monday.

That includes the lock position which has seen two senior figures suddenly unavailable, after the surprise retirement of veteran Ali Williams and the fractured finger picked up by Crusaders kingpin Sam Whitelock.

Crusaders giant Dominic Bird (22) and the Hurricanes' Jeremy Thrush (28), neither of whom have any international experience, have suddenly become next cabs off the rank behind Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano. That's a situation Hansen is comfortable with.

"I think we're going to be pleasantly surprised with the two young guys, and it's pretty obvious who they are," he said yesterday. "What I am pleased about is the progress that Luke and Brodie have made since last year. They've gone up another cog, and have played particularly well in Super Rugby.

"Losing Sam, though it's an annoying itch, it's one we'll put up with and it gives us an opportunity to grow two other guys. Hopefully they'll seize that opportunity and both have fitted in pretty well at the camp."

Hansen also brushed off concerns about the form of some senior incumbents, particularly the Highlanders group of Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Ma'a Nonu.

"It's difficult looking at the Highlanders guys and saying they're out of form, or they're in form. They're in a team that's struggling for various reasons, and when your team's not playing well it's hard for an individual to play well.

"Just seeing the smiles on their faces when they've come into camp has been good. They've still got their inner self-belief which is important and a change of environment I think will help them.

"We'll make some judgments when we've seen them play in the test matches."

Hansen, meanwhile, was not reading too much into the appointment of another New Zealander to coach a major overseas test side, with Vern Cotter taking over in charge of Scotland.

Asked if Cotter was following a well-worn path to be a future All Blacks coach by guiding another international side first, Hansen wasn't sure that was the translation, even though both he and Graham Henry had done so with Wales.

"I think we're seeing a pattern if you're a New Zealander you're going to be an international coach," he said. "What sides aren't we coaching? So that's a huge pat on the back for the New Zealand system.

"But my concern is it puts a lot pressure on our coaches. We may be exposing some of them younger or with less experience than we need to be. It would be lovely if we had all those guys back coaching here. One coach gets to handle 25 to 30 players and can make a massive difference."

But Hansen said he understands why coaches head offshore, with a paucity of top-level opportunities in this country.

"Do you have to have coached internationally before you coach the All Blacks? No. I think someone like (current assistant) Ian Foster will make a great All Blacks coach one day. There many roads that take you to Mount Maunganui."