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Chris Rattue: Just give Hansen the reins, already

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Graham Henry and Dan Carter with the Cup. Photo / APN
Graham Henry and Dan Carter with the Cup. Photo / APN

The New Zealand Rugby Union is big on the appearance of due diligence in selecting the All Black coaches but they might as well go for undue haste this time.

Should the triumphant Graham Henry stand down, as most expect him to do, then forwards coach Steve Hansen is a dead cert to take over. He has unbridled confidence and ambition, a World Cup in the bag, a fabulous forward pack on the CV, a long and varied international apprenticeship and - vitally - friends in high places.

The NZRU could almost have handed over the reins while the confetti was floating down.

Hansen, who on fleeting utterances has an astounding lack of appreciation for the concept that journalists are not employed by the NZRU, will present a challenge or two for the poor media sods dealing with him on a regular basis. But no one is perfect.

With his slightly hooded eyes, burly figure and confident slouch, there is a menacing presence and calmness to the man that suggest he will take the pressures either nonchalantly or belligerently in his slow swagger.

Hansen, if I recall, was given a little sabbatical along the way because of a faltering lineout, as the coaches played musical chairs. He resumed his seat with aplomb.

Henry and Hansen's forward pack was the star of this World Cup tournament, the Webb Ellis Cup victory built on its expertise, muscle and resilience. Hansen, from this distant judgment, deserves major credit.

He had an amazing head start named Richie McCaw, a remarkable footballer and man. The injured McCaw carried burdens with class, providing so many jewels that he deserves the whole damned crown.

The captain's influence on the team, on games, is groundbreaking. There will never be another McCaw, and the All Blacks face tricky questions over blooding his successor because the openside's peak condition won't last as long as his new four-year contract.

As much as a few of us crave old-style test normality, the Webb Ellis Cup's golden glow will get brighter. Much of what goes on between the tournaments involves filling the landing craft for the world rugby war. At some point in assessing this legendary All Black, Hansen will need to determine what McCaw's condition will be in 2015.

Hansen, though, seems to have the forwards coaching business on a string. If you accept the political decision not to select overseas-based players - one that would have exposed the scrum had tighthead Owen Franks followed a stream of first five-eighths into the casualty ward - then the pack development was near faultless.

Wayne Smith's backs were a very different story, his performance as open to challenge as the idea that Ian Foster is the man to take his place.

The wonderful journey came perilously close to a final, disastrous collapse. Over the past couple of days, I have found plenty of people in the cheering crowd who, while celebrating for all they are worth, also want to know what went wrong at Eden Park on Sunday night.

France had not been written off by all of us, as has been claimed by some of us, and you didn't have to look hard for warnings. Former All Black captains Sean Fitzpatrick, Taine Randell and Anton Oliver all suggested the past be taken into account before writing the future in stone. Individually, France are very good, and they have all the set piece basics. On their day, they play with more heart and verve than anyone. On that night, they were superb in the opposition cauldron and almost created history through their excellence, but also because the All Blacks froze.

My conclusion: the All Blacks choked at the World Cup yet again, the difference being that this time they got away with it.

The All Black operation can be split into two operations. The development of the pack was precise and on the money. When a mistake was made, as with Isaac Ross, a fabulous solution - Sam Whitelock - was found. The old timers were not found wanting. Henry and Hansen rightly deduced that there was still enough juice in the tanks of Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock. They got the hooker rotation bang on.

Unlike a few doubters (hand up here), they had faith in Jerome Kaino, a brilliant call, and made another with the early elevation of Owen Franks, having shuffled their way through an army of prop candidates. Kieran Read's development was spectacular. The All Black pack was bettered at times during the final, but fair play to France in that, for dealing to the best New Zealand could throw at them.

Not so the backs, where dishevelled selections and doubtful strategies failed to deliver attack and composure in the big matches to a point that you could only laugh at pre-final claims of an All Black victory representing a victory for glorious rugby.

The most dazzling, effective run in the final was delivered by the All Blacks' loosehead prop. Despite crushing the Wallaby forwards, the All Blacks were limited to a couple of Israel Dagg bursts, and one from Aaron Cruden, in the semifinal.

Piri Weepu was a last-minute choice at halfback. Outside him, Colin Slade was the wrong choice, Aaron Cruden too much of a late choice, leaving Stephen Donald as the cavalry who came in from the cold and off the couch. And they call that four years of meticulous planning.

In short, the halves selections were a mess and included Hail Mary crisis calls, as was the players' control over the final; elsewhere Conrad Smith had lost all attacking zeal, Dagg was underprepared, and the wings were without wings.

The All Blacks wasted huge advantages in settling for the hope of an odd good run from defensive, kick and catch wings. There is much more to gain by instilling those base qualities in players such as Hosea Gear and Rene Ranger who can also blow opponents off the park. How hard, in all honesty, would it be to get Ranger to run after kicks and smash waiting opponents, and catch a few bombs? Australia has stuff all resources, yet little James O'Connor and charging Digby Ioane eat Cory Jane and Richard Kahui for breakfast on attack, without lapsing elsewhere.

The other remarkable business is that the All Blacks went into the game of games without a test-class goalkicker. Utterly extraordinary.

The great victory was also the great escape. The wonderful ship All Blacks came oh so close to the rocks on Sunday night, having departed with a favourable wind, veteran navigators and towards calm waters. Once Hansen gets the ticker tape out of his fringe, he'll see the reality because that is in his best interests.

As a final thought, the NZRU has to review the residential rule, specifically for the World Cup squads. New Zealand got away with ignoring Nick Evans and Carl Hayman. But on the Evans issue alone, only just.


* Due to an increasing amount of unpublishable postings, the comment feature has been turned off this opinion piece.

- NZ Herald

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