Hansen rings changes with legacy on the line
Canon Rugby in Focus: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen dropped some major bombshells with the naming of the team to face the Wallabies at Eden Park.
Steve Hansen’s legacy is on the line.
Which perhaps explains the uncharacteristic drastic action he’s taken with the team he’s named for Saturday’s increasingly important Bledisloe Cup match in Auckland.
Ben Smith has been dropped. Yes, dropped. That’s the bloke who has played 79 tests and is the regular vice captain.
Dropped, gone and now at risk of being overtaken in the way Mils Muliaina was by Israel Dagg at the 2011 World Cup.
So, too, has Rieko Ioane been cast aside with George Bridge and Sevu Reece handed their fourth and second caps respectively on the wings.
There is a way back for Ioane and Smith, but with so much at stake this weekend - let’s not forget Hansen said the Bledisloe Cup is second to the World Cup - this is massive by Hansen.
Which brings us to prop, where Owen Franks has also been dumped, pushed aside with his 108 tests caps for Nepo Laulala and his 18.
No room at the inn for Franks on the bench either. Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Angus Ta’avao are in the reserves as Hansen looks for props who can carry the ball as well as scrum.
In a test season where changes have been in vogue, this is as radical as the time Lady Gaga wore a meat dress to the MTV Video Music Awards.
It has to be hoped this side doesn’t stink like a side of beef left out in the sun.
Hansen has thrown caution to the wind after last week’s record equaling loss in Perth.
With the dramatic changes, he’s brought Sonny Bill Williams back at second-five and put Patrick Tuipulotu in at lock in the absence of Scott Barrett (suspended) and Brodie Retallick (injured).
There is a lot on the line for Hansen this week, perhaps unfairly, but that’s the reality of elite sport.
His reputation is at stake and though he may recoil at a test being personalised, he can’t escape it.
Hansen has been a magnificent All Blacks coach with a long record of success and a reputation for being methodical, unflappable and determined to stick to the plan.
But that seems to be unraveling. He seems to have lost faith in his own beliefs.
Change has been a constant this year and the injury to Damian McKenzie and odd absence of Liam Squire has clearly unsettled the World Cup planning.
And now Hansen stands on the precipice, looking out at a vista that could feature triumph, or abject failure.
At about 9.30pm on Saturday, the All Blacks could hand to Australia the Bledisloe Cup they have held since 2003.
They haven’t lost at Eden Park since 1994 and not to Australia since 1986. Hansen doesn’t want to be the coach who ends that.
And a loss would see the public’s confidence in his World Cup planning slip, the shadows of doubt stretching longer, creeping further into the corners and echoing more loudly in the pubs and rugby clubs.
Hansen will bristle at this. He will suggest it’s not about him, that we need to have a bit more faith, that it is the World Cup that matters.
He is right.
He deserves our faith, given the success he has provided first as Graham Henry’s assistant and, since 2012, as the All Blacks head coach.
And it is the World Cup that matters.
Hansen’s team could be a master stroke. The All Blacks could smash Australia on Saturday and kick on to win the World Cup in a blaze of glory, allowing Hansen to retire as the greatest coach we’ve ever had.
But, if he gets it wrong, Hansen could be the coach who lost all the silverware in one year.
That will overwhelm anything he has done before. Few recall that John Hart coached the All Blacks to their first ever series win in South Africa in 1996. Instead they talk about the All Blacks semi final exit at the 1999 World Cup, a tournament where they finished fourth.
It might be unfair but elite sport is ruthless. You are, so often, only as good as your last game.
For the All Blacks, that was a 21-point loss to Australia.
So Hansen has rung the changes in response. He might say this is giving players a chance to impress before the World Cup but that needs to be taken in context.
He hasn’t settled on a top team this year and few could predict what that might be, with the World Cup now just a month away.
The clock is ticking. Hansen has taken one of the biggest gambles of his career with this team for Saturday.
His legacy is on the line at Eden Park.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.
All Blacks team for Investec Challenge Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia in the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park on Saturday. 17 August.
Test caps in brackets
1 Joe Moody (39)
2 Dane Coles (63)
3 Nepo Laulala (18)
4 Patrick Tuipulotu (23)
5 Samuel Whitelock (110)
6 Ardie Savea (37)
7 Sam Cane (62)
8 Kieran Read - captain (120)
9 Aaron Smith (85)
10 Richie Mo’unga (11)
11 George Bridge (3)
12 Sonny Bill Williams (52)
13 Anton Lienert-Brown (36)
14 Sevu Reece (1)
15 Beauden Barrett (76)
16 Codie Taylor (43)
17 Ofa Tuungafasi (28)
18 Angus Ta’avao (6)
19 Jackson Hemopo (4)
20 Matt Todd (19)
21 TJ Perenara (57)
22 Ngani Laumape (12)
23 Jordie Barrett (10)