Steve Hansen keeps V8 power in engine room

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2013
Ben Smith
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BIG IMPROVER: Ben Smith showed once again why he's earned his spot in the All Blacks starting XV.

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OPINION: We always knew Steve Hansen could be blunt. We knew he also had a sense of humour buried behind the game face.

What he's now proving is that he has the backbone to go with the fair dinkum, No 8 wire image.

The great, but usually catastrophic, temptation for an All Black coach after a successful world cup is to stick with the veterans.

It happened after '87 when a side about a year past their best were run off their feet by Australia in Dublin in '91. It happened again after '95, when a no-risk, no-newbies policy brought brilliant results for two years, and then tears (as in some players crying in the shed) in '98 (five successive test losses) and at the World Cup in '99.

Hansen spent eight years working alongside Graham Henry, but if ever felt he was in Henry's potentially intimidating shadow, he hasn't shown any sign of it now he's the boss.

Last night in Christchurch his team began with eight players who didn't start the World Cup final in 2011.

So if he hasn't cleared the shelves, he's sure as hell given them a good dusting.

Most importantly he's freshening up the team not against feeble opposition, but a French outfit who, with just a bit more at Eden Park, might have won the first test.

The midfielders Florian Fritz and Wesley Fofana are the latest in a long line of classy, exciting ball runners for France, and No 8 Louis Picamole, is, as commentator Mike Stanley summed up gold-medal rower Eric Murray in London, "a beast". But in the refurbishing of the All Blacks machine, Hansen hasn't sacrificed raw power.

Kieran Read, says his Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, leads by dynamic example. "The power he generates when he runs," says Blackadder, "it's staggering sometimes." There's something heart warming about the indomitable way Read runs. Liam Messam, as befits a former sevens star, almost glides over the ground.

By comparison, when Read burst away from his own 22m in the first half, he was working so hard it wouldn't have been a surprise if his boots had dug divots out of the turf.

Overall, there was a real sense of sting and direction in the forwards.

Wyatt Crockett has the great misfortune of seeming to be a target for trigger-happy referees at scrums. Taller than almost any prop he packs against, he can look awkward. Given that I've yet to meet a single international frontrower who doesn't believe that even test referees have no understanding of what really happens when a scrum collapses, that's unfortunate for Crockett.

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But if he can get a fair shake at scrum time he adds enormously to any side with his round-the-field play. He's fit, hard and has developed a devastating shoulder charge with the ball, and a fine line in crash tackles.

The one change from Eden Park, the injury enforced return of Sam Whitelock, made the All Blacks much more threatening in the lineouts, which had been a little shaky a week ago.

The French competed. This isn't one of the June visiting sides from past years who were undermanned and uninterested. But it was a much improved performance for the All Blacks that smacked them aside.

Hansen's faith in Julian Savea, for example, was rewarded with a much more energetic effort than he managed in Auckland, and Aaron Cruden didn't have another jittery start with his kicking.

As for Ben Smith, he showed again how he's become a first-choice selection.

When Muhammad Ali beat a massive, scary thug called Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title, he hit Liston with a powerful right hand, "and I saw what he's going to look like when he's an old man." There was the same feeling when Ben Smith scored a brilliant counter-attacking try which followed a long spell on defence. Suddenly the vibrancy the French had been displaying for the first 50 minutes drained away, and they looked battered and a long way from home.

Boldness all round paid off last night for New Zealand.

- Sunday Star Times

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