Can All Blacks maintain intensity?
January 16, 2012
Can Steve Hansen make his mark as head coach of the All Blacks? © Getty Images
In rugby's professional era intensity has become the sole objective of any side with serious ambition. Intensity on the training paddock, intensity during the 80 minutes when it matters most, raising levels of intensity and so on.
Intensity has always been the hallmark of New Zealand rugby, even in the so-called amateur days when in some parts of the world it was regarded as poor form to be seen to be trying too hard. New Zealand rugby folk never bought into that, it was what set the All Blacks apart, intensity established their fearsome reputation and was somehow transmitted through the generations. Wearing the black jersey demanded nothing less than complete commitment but the intensity that fuelled such commitment is observable at all levels of New Zealand rugby, from school playing fields to the top flight.
The euphoric relief that greeted the World Cup victory over the French punctured a tension that had been building ever since 1987 and which had become almost unbearable by last October. Coach Henry's preparations had begun in the days following his reappointment in the aftermath of the Cardiff debacle and culminated in the New Year's knighthood.
So 2012 represents a fresh start, of sorts, for the All Blacks. The coaching panel has been re-configured, Steve Hansen now stepping up as head coach, Ian Foster and Aussie McLean joining him as assistants and Grant Fox assuming the role of selector. The mantle of world champions eases the pressure created by previous World Cup failures but it could be argued that that pressure fed the intensity which eventually saw the All Blacks prevail in Auckland.
Hansen now faces a very different challenge and very different pressures, creating an All Blacks side capable of once again being crowned the best in the world in England in 2015. But whilst that side will not be created in the next two years, his tenure could be relatively short lived if he allows a drop in intensity levels and Test form becomes patchy. The New Zealand rugby public, to say nothing of his employers in the NZRU, will not accept any decline in the standards which they see as their historic right.
The appointment of Foster was widely touted and in terms of the professional coaching structure in New Zealand has a logic to it. A good first five at provincial level, Foster has coached the Chiefs and the Junior All Blacks, without ever catching the imagination and without ever achieving a great deal in Super Rugby. The NZRU presumably see him as a future All Black coach and the next couple of years as an apprenticeship of sorts. McLean has been recruited as the defence coach and is described as the junior of the two assistants to Hansen. Like Hansen, he made his provincial name as coach to the successful Canterbury NPC side and saw action at the World Cup within the Manu Samoa coaching set-up.
This new triumvirate will come under early pressure to deliver quality performances and whilst there is clearly a continuity between the old and the new coaching regimes, for which the NZRU is to be applauded, Hansen in particular will not be granted too much of a honeymoon period. He is not an individual who has made any real connection with the New Zealand rugby watching public and his coaching fate will, I suspect, be a matter of indifference to them. Only in the next couple of years will we get any clear idea of his individual contribution to the All Blacks' World Cup success and the qualities that he brought to a mighty collective effort.
At this point in the World Cup cycle Hansen does, of course, enjoy the relative luxury of having time to develop emerging talent. Perhaps this is where Foster will be of most use because he has coached the next tier of Test players and will have a good idea of who is capable of making the step up both in the short and longer term. It is hard to envisage Richie McCaw leading the side in 2015 but the presence, experience and quality of Kieran Read makes the task of finding the next All Black skipper straightforward. The same can be said of Dan Carter, again one of Foster's main projects being the identification and development of Carter's replacement. Aaron Cruden, once fit, starts in pole position but there is time enough for younger emerging talent.
So what can we expect from the All Blacks in 2012, now that that massive monkey is off their backs? All we have to do is look at history for the answer. The All Blacks will behave and play with the same levels of intensity that identify them as the world's top rugby team. They can do no other, that is their birthright.
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