All Blacks coach Steve Hansen set to add much-needed hitout ahead of Lions series
Forget Twickenham in November, there's only one match Steve Hansen really needs added to the All Blacks' schedule at this stage of proceedings.
That's the certain matter of a hitout on the weekend before the opening test of the Lions series in June ─ an outing that might mean the difference between a triumph or disaster against what they're saying could be one of the strongest composite sides ever to leave the shores of Old Blighty.
Twelve years ago the All Blacks did a small but sensible thing ahead of their last series against the British and Irish Lions. They got out and shook off the cobwebs in a warmup test, which proved a major difference-maker.
Now Hansen, an uncomplicated man, is ready to repeat history as those anachronistic Lions reappear for their 12-yearly tour of Aotearoa in what is shaping as a three-test series for the ages.
Hansen will have his All Blacks squad together for two weeks prior to the opening international in Auckland on June 24. At this stage they don't have a match scheduled, but the All Blacks coach told the Star-Times that was likely to change as tour preparations firm.
The All Blacks are notoriously slow starters in June. They tend to take a game, or more, to find the flow and shake off the rust. Inevitably they're good enough to eke out wins anyway, but there's often a sense of vulnerability first up.
In a normal June window Hansen might live with that susceptibility. But this will be no ordinary series. Warren Gatland's stacked Lions will have had six tour games ahead of the opening skirmish at Eden Park. They will be razor sharp, if slightly battered, by June 24, and Hansen simply cannot afford to send his men out underdone.
In 2005 the All Blacks slipped in a test hitout against Fiji a full fortnight before the opening clash against the Lions in Christchurch. Graham Henry's men (Hansen was an assistant coach back then) walloped the Fijians 91-0 in a 15-try extravaganza, but the match served its purpose when they turned up at the then Jade Stadium with the edge they needed to complete a 21-3 first-up victory.
Asked the big lessons he took on board from 2005's series sweep, Hansen's response is telling.
"We got our selections right, and we got our preparation right," he told the Star-Times. "We had a bit more time so we could play that game against Fiji. Those things helped. Selection and preparation will be the key again and if we get those right we give ourselves a good chance of starting well."
Hansen said it was "difficult" to find an opponent to serve the purpose, but "we'll make that decision over the next couple of weeks whether we're going to really push that. We either play an opposition or we play ourselves, but we'll have to do something".
A Barbarians type opponent shapes as the best prospect, complicated slightly by the fact the franchises are all preparing for their own games against the tourists, and player availability could be at a premium.
National selector Grant Fox, who was part of the 1993 All Blacks who eked out a 2-1 series victory over the Lions, said a pre-Lions hitout was imperative.
"We are vulnerable in that first game and that's natural because we haven't had any time together. The Lions will have had six games, and some good, tough preparation. We will have had two weeks of assembly time plus a wee hitout of some description.
"It's critical, and it's proved critical the last few years for us. We know a hitout is more beneficial than not having one."
Hansen is relaxed about the injury toll already evident in Super Rugby. "There are going to be some guys who miss the series because of injuries and that's just bad luck. But you know you're going to get them and you've just got do the best to make sure everybody is well looked after and we get them back as quick as we can."
He confirmed Sonny Bill Williams, who hasn't played since rupturing his Achilles at the Olympics last year, was on track with his return schedule for the Blues.
"He's making good progress, and is in good nick for where he's meant to be at this point. When the time comes he'll take a couple of games but mentally I know he's enjoyed the freshen up, he's working hard and I'm sure he'll be rewarded for that hard work."
Hansen also expects a heavy English representation in a Lions tour squad that "will be the best they've selected for a long time".
"Their player depth is huge," he said, citing the options Gatland will have at No 10. "It doesn't matter who they pick they've got another one waiting, and it's like that in just about every position. England are playing very well, and you get rewarded for playing well by selection. It will be interesting to see just what the ratio is, but there's a big squad coming so there's room to pick a lot of players."
Asked whether he expected England's success and style to be transplanted into the Lions, Hansen replied: "The most difficult thing Warren will have is he can't be Eddie Jones. He'll be Warren Gatland, so there's your difference straight away."
- Sunday Star Times