Steve Hansen warns rivals: Lions series will make us stronger
If you're the Wallabies and Springboks, you just might want to put that ticker-tape order on the back-burner.
For those anticipating the All Blacks' apparent decline becoming a permanent state of affairs, they might best heed these words from coach Steve Hansen on the Lions series stalemate: "We'll come out of it a lot stronger. Whilst it wasn't the result we all wanted, it may well have been what we all needed."
Needed? Are you listening Australia? You too South Africa? Any hint of satisfaction from the New Zealanders' principal Rugby Championship rivals on the back of a Lions series in which the All Blacks managed to win just one test should surely be tempered by Hansen's words. The bear hasn't just been poked, it has been stirred.
Remember, this is a coach who, even on the back of a matchup being labelled here, there and everywhere a failure, has lost just five of the 72 tests his All Blacks have played in the near six seasons he has been in charge. It's a tough audience he plays for.
He caught the British and Irish Lions about as strong as they've been, maybe since 1971, maybe since ever; had a horrible run with injuries (Dane Coles, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty the principal defections); got the rough end of the officiating pineapple from possibly the greatest French injustice perpetrated on Kiwi soil since the Rainbow Warrior; and still ended up sharing the honours.
Glass half-empty? Or half-full?
Yes, it wasn't what the Kiwi public expects from its All Blacks. Heck, it wasn't what the back-to-back world champions expect from themselves. Their funeral faces at the end said it all. If it felt like a loss, smelt like a defeat and waddled like a disappointment, it sure as heck wasn't something to celebrate.
Stalemate? This is the All Blacks. They only do checkmate.
But Hansen's attitude speaks to the All Blacks' next move. Which will take place, initially, in Bledisloe I in Sydney on August 19; and continue just seven days later in Dunedin for the rematch. They have taken some punches. Had their noses bloodied. But they're about to get up off the canvas.
When we speak, just a few days have passed since the Lions series, yet Hansen is already immersed in planning for the Rugby Championship resumption in just a few weeks. He expects a much stronger Wallaby foe in 2017. The Boks too. The job never stops.
"There are things we can do better," he says. "The big thing is we've faced something we don't face very often. We had to work our way through dealing with line-speed. Andy Farrell's defence was very good - a full-press right across the park.
"The first test we dealt with it easily by coming off 9; the second, with only 14 on the park, it's really hard to tell how we dealt with it because we didn't play enough rugby; and the third we dealt with it in the right way, but our execution was off.
"There are learnings that will be very important going forward, because it won't be the last time we face line-speed."
Besides, the knife cut both ways.
"They didn't handle our line-speed either," adds Hansen. "It's a difficult thing to deal with. Your traditional depth and timing is challenged. The more we start using it down here, the better we'll get executing against it. It doesn't mean you can't beat it. You've just got to give yourself the opportunity through execution."
The All Blacks weren't all bad against the Lions. Their scrum was outstanding and continues to be a major weapon. The breakdown work was mostly positive. The lineout had a miscue or two, but by the third test they had adjusted to the lack of policing around the requisite gap by going quick. Like the line-speed, it was about thinking on the fly.
Their attack was largely blunted, though they still finished three crisp tries in the opening test, and should have at least doubled the two five-pointers they converted in the third, but for some inexplicable handling lapses.
They also chewed through some players in midfield and the back three, but Hansen now knows more about Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett in the pressure-cooker. Valuable info.
The coach sees no hangover with Sonny Bill Williams post-suspension either. "A lot of people love him or hate him, but every time he plays for us he gets better and better. The last World Cup he was outstanding. The first test he played really well, and we didn't see enough of him in the second to make any judgment. He's learnt a harsh lesson about having to use his arms."
Hansen also firmly believes Beauden Barrett will be the better for his first major challenge since assuming the No 10 role. There is no panic about a goalkicking miss or two over the back end of the series, with a technical issue around his plant foot already identified.
"Throughout this series, both with his goalkicking and direction of the game, he was put under pressure. But he'll be better in both those departments going forward."
Nothing is especially broken with the All Blacks heading into the southern hemisphere quotient of their season. They have just been reminded there is plenty they can do better.
"We created opportunities against the best defensive system in the world, but because we didn't execute, we didn't maximise those chances. We haven't lost many games, so to lose one, and draw the next, that's painful. But we'll come out of it stronger.
"There's always going to be a roadbump or two in any team's lifespan. In 2007 we had a major one. The Lions series isn't an '07 roadbump, but it's a big enough one to challenge us to get better at some areas of our game. We'll do that."
The Wallabies have been warned. Boks too.
- Sunday Star Times