Hansen has task ahead to fill Henry’s shoes
AUCKLAND - ReutersNew All Blacks coach Steve Hansen ascended to the job he had publicly coveted for the best part of a year Dec. 16, but he inherits a team in transition and has tough choices to make as the World Cup winners put the Graham Henry era behind them.
The 65-year-old Henry quit New Zealand’s second most scrutinised job behind that of prime minister on Nov. 1, taking with him a legacy of 88 wins in 103 tests, a series sweep of the 2005 British and Irish Lions, five Tri-Nations titles, three grand slam tours and a World Cup title.
Hansen, who had been brought into the Wales set-up in 2001 by Henry and then served as his assistant for eight years with the All Blacks, must ensure that legacy of success continues.
The 52-year-old also inherits a team that is slowly fracturing through retirement and the lure of overseas contracts.
Much of the spine of the World Cup squad will remain intact for the duration of Hansen’s two-year contract, though fullback Mils Muliaina and lock Brad Thorn have already slipped off to Japan.
Hansen will be forced to make some hard decisions on vastly experienced players whose All Blacks careers are nearing an end.
Hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore, prop Tony Woodcock, lock Ali Williams and centre Conrad Smith are all 30 or older, while Ma’a Nonu will reach the milestone next year. All have achieved more than 50 test caps for the All Blacks.
The major concern, however, could be the possible international, or forced, retirement of two of the greatest players rugby has seen in flyhalf Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw in the next two years.
While both have committed to New Zealand rugby for the next four years, injuries are starting to mount for the pair and it is doubtful whether they will still be around for their fourth World Cup in England in 2015.
Hansen will therefore need to continue refreshing the squad to add to the young players like fullback Israel Dagg, number eight Kieran Read and tighthead prop Owen Franks introduced in the last two years, and get them ready for 2015.
He will have to judge the right time to blood promising players like Canterbury flanker Matt Todd and Taranaki flyhalf Beauden Barrett and make sure they are given time to flourish in the environment.
He is also well aware the New Zealand public will demand the same kind of success delivered by Henry. They will also want it achieved through an attractive, attacking style of rugby.
While Hansen was the only candidate put forward for an interview by the NZRU board on Dec. 16, and then received an unanimous endorsement, in reality he was the only choice.
Questions will be asked as to whether he was the best man for the job, or just the best man available.
Former All Blacks Warren Gatland and Robbie Deans have been locked into long-term contracts with Wales and Australia respectively, while former Japan coach John Kirwan is highly regarded but could not fulfill the selection criteria.
Candidates must have coached at the top level within New Zealand in the past 12 months, or for a total of three years, no longer than five years ago.
There was also a dearth of local experienced Super Rugby coaches and while Todd Blackadder (Crusaders), Mark Hammett (Hurricanes) and Jamie Joseph (Highlanders) are also highly thought of it was felt they were not quite ready to step up.
Hansen is also no stranger to criticism.
After taking over from Henry as head coach of Wales during the 2002 Six Nations the team suffered a run of 10 successive losses, only broken shortly before the 2003 World Cup.
He also came under fire when he returned to New Zealand to work under Henry as the All Blacks forwards coach.
Hansen was criticised when the All Blacks lineout failed to function during the 2009 Tri-Nations and New Zealand were beaten three times by the Springboks. He stepped away from those responsibilities for a short time before turning them around in 2010.