TOKYO (AP) – There’s a reason Steve Hansen is comfortable calling Eddie Jones’ bluff. From a place called Bluff in the deepest south to Cape Reinga in the far north, Hansen can genuinely say the men wearing All Blacks jerseys at the Rugby World Cup have the full backing of their nation.
Rugby is more of an obsession than a game in the volcanic islands of New Zealand, from where the All Blacks have emerged as a globally recognisable export. It’s not the domain of the monied, it’s every Kiwi’s sport.
England has the finances to outspend any other union to prepare a World Cup squad, but it can’t match New Zealand’s cultural connection to its team.
Jones knows that, so he’s tried a few avenues to get under the skins of New Zealanders ahead of tomorrow’s semi-final at Yokohama. He has declared the All Blacks as the
best team in the history of sport, but then suggested they could be mentally fragile under the burden of knockout pressure.
He acknowledged the nation-wide following the All Blacks command, then chirped about New Zealand reporters covering the World Cup being merely fans with keyboards.
He even tossed in a spying allegation about somebody secretly filming England’s practice, although he didn’t specifically say it was coming from New Zealand.
Hansen’s response has been subtle. He accepted Jones’ rating of the All Blacks as being heartfelt and clearly well considered.
“It’s a really nice statement and I wouldn’t doubt that Eddie believes that, but he is also being quite kind to us,” Hansen said.
“History is history and (this game) is about creating new history. Both teams are going to go at each other on Saturday and that game won’t define either team, but it will give one team the opportunity to go through to play a final.”
He pointed to how close England got to winning their most recent meeting – before slumping to a sixth consecutive loss.
England has never beaten New Zealand at the World Cup, losing in 1991, 1999 and in the semi-finals in 1995. The overall record is New Zealand 33 wins and a draw in 41 matches.
When asked where the Anglo-Kiwi match stood in the pantheon of rugby rivalries, Hansen selected South Africa as New Zealand’s greatest rugby adversary, despite facing the double-headed monster of England with an antagonistic Aussie coach this weekend.
Perhaps he was thinking further ahead to his ideal final. That could happen if New Zealand beats England and the Springboks beat Wales in Sunday’s semi-final. “I think we’ve played England once in the last six years, so it’s hard to build a rivalry when you don’t play each other,” Hansen said, implying it could be a more regular feature if the home nations really wanted it.
“If we could get the Six Nations to come on board for a global season, we’d be able to do that. Once they do that, then they’re starting to think about the game rather than themselves.”
For the benefit of any British journalists in the room, and any fans with keyboards, he added, “There’s a headline for you.”
New Zealand haven’t lost a game at the World Cup since an upset quarter-final defeat to France in 2007, adding its second title on home soil in 2011 and a third in England four years ago – when England failed to make it out of the group stage.
England have always been strong at the set-piece, particularly the scrum. Hansen said New Zealand’s pack deserved to get more credit.
He promoted the versatile Scott Barrett to the starting line-up to add size and bulk and another lineout option, relegating Sam Cane to the bench. It was the only change to the starting line-up that started in the 46-14 quarter-final win over Ireland.
England’s backs have shown they can be expansive, and Jones made one change to the starting lineup to increase that and counter a New Zealand threat. George Ford will start at flyhalf, with Owen Farrell rejoining Manu Tuilagi in the midfield.
Jones said New Zealand’s bid for a ‘three-peat’ was compounding the pressure on the All Blacks.
“We don’t have any pressure, mate. No one thinks we can win,” Jones said. “There are 120 million Japanese people out there whose second team are the All Blacks.”
Hansen rejected Jones’ appraisal, saying he enjoyed some of his counterpart’s one-liners but didn’t take any of the mind games seriously.
“Logic would say we shouldn’t be favourites because (three straight titles) has never been done before,” Hansen said, adding that England really had more to lose considering the four-year buildup since its failure in 2015.
“England were desperately disappointed with how they went,” Hansen said. “They’ll be under immense pressure themselves. To say they’ve got nothing to lose? Eddie doesn’t believe that, either.”