Press conferences can be boring and frustrating business. More often than not, this is an exercise in marginal gains. Respondents – aware of a misstep or providing verbal ammunition to the opposition – tend to play sticks most directly at inquiries from the room.
So when a coach or a player lets his guard down and starts to say what he’s thinking, every reporter in the room leans forward and looks at every word. And Steve Hansen captivated a room for journalists after New Zealand’s resounding victory over Ireland in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals in Japan.
Joe Schmidt’s team had been hit harder than any of the nation’s bullet trains in the first quarter and never recovered. Ireland had beaten the Men in Black 16-9 in Dublin a year earlier, apparently making a big World Cup statement, but they fell short of the Kiwis in Tokyo, falling to a traumatic loss 46 -14.
New Zealand’s shift in strategy – particularly in the selection – was notable 12 months after that stinging loss in Dublin. Hansen decided to clean the house. A few old and flaky clients have been moved and a new generation has been accelerated in the starting formation. Meanwhile, business was business as usual at Camp Schmidt after their conquering exploits in 2018.
Then Ireland’s form came off the edge of the cliff in 2019. The All Blacks were evolving and came to Japan with a new outfit.
They would face Ireland with a drastically reshaped backline. Beauden Barrett has been moved to the back to accommodate the early talents of Richie Mo’unga at the half, while young full-backs like George Bridge, Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece have been drafted. They all made their presence felt as Schmidt’s team were blown away. out of the park.
Hours after the final whistle, Hansen arrived at the press conference to answer questions from the global media. He was told that he placed a lot of faith in a lot of rookies during this tournament and asked if he felt justified. Hansen’s response left everyone in the room stunned.
“The experience is a fun thing,” explained the All Blacks boss at the time.
“What did they go through? This is the test. A lot of our guys have been involved with winning Super Rugby Championship teams, great times, and that’s why you pick them. They also performed well in the test matches.
âTheir enthusiasm, enthusiasm and ability to play the game in a formula is really important, as is the leadership and experience of the guys who have come through the tough times.
âIt was interesting, everyone was talking about how many (experienced players) Ireland has – but half of our 23 had played in a knockout (World Cup) game and won it.
“And that was the difference, wasn’t it?” I don’t mean to be disrespectful in saying this, but Ireland’s experience was not about winning.
âWe had 11 guys with the winning experience. That is why you have to be careful when speaking from experience. Just because you’ve been playing for a long time, you might have learned things that you don’t want to learn, or you might not have learned anything along the way.
Which brings us to Munster under Johann van Graan. The South African is leaving for new pastures next season. Long-term lucrative deal with Bath. Rebuilding work for Premiership fighters with a big checkbook to speed up the process.
Van Graan will not feel the same pressures as in Limerick.
The pressure to win a trophy was overwhelming. Time and time again, Van Graan has had to attend press conferences and try to explain the reasons for yet another defeat in the semi-finals, in the league (against Leinster generally) or in Europe.
Time and time again, Van Graan has been criticized for his conservatism, both in tactics and in selection. Following a disheartening 13-3 loss to Leinster in a Pro14 semi-final last year, Van Graan later ventured to say that park the bus and kick the ball in the kingdom was the only way to stay in the fight against Leo Cullen. men – citing the Saracen’s success in deploying similar tactics in one location.
As for the province’s young players, it seems the penny has only recently come down for Van Graan and only because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the camp.
The untested quintet’s performance against the Wasps at Coventry, ably assisted by seven other newbies from the bench, only confirmed what many have known for some time: Munster academy is in pretty good shape these days. .
There wasn’t much to say after last weekend’s shattering victory over Castres, but the team that finished the game was revealing. Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Jack O’Sullivan, Alex Kendellen, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley and Patrick Campbell were all on the pitch as the hosts claimed a fierce victory at Thomond Park.
This is quite the cast of young people.
The potential of such a group is enormous. Add Scott Buckley, Thomas Ahern, Gavin Coombes, Ben Healy and Conor Philips and you will have the makings of a very good team for years to come.
Whoever succeeds Van Graan, you hope they think along the same lines. Hansen might be interested in taking the job.
He certainly has a proven track record in developing raw talent into frontline competitors.
Maybe the job would be too small for someone who spent 15 years on the All Blacks coaching staff, including eight as a head coach, with an 89% win rate and two Cups. world (in 2011 and 2015) for good measure.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Munster’s top brass, who are currently preparing a shortlist for the top job, shouldn’t pick up the phone and ask if Hansen would be interested.
Like Schmidt, he took a break after the 2019 World Cup. A break was needed after so many demanding years in the most demanding concerts.
Most recently he worked as a training consultant with the Toyota Verblitz club in Japan. He also shared his wisdom with the Canterbury Bulldogs – an Australian rugby league team in the doldrums.
Would he want to return Munster? He likes a project and he knows the territory. Long before the ex-cop became a mainstay of the All Blacks coaching staff, he succeeded Graham Henry as Wales head coach, spending two years in his post before returning home him.
His public personality has also mellowed in recent times. Considered gruff and confrontational in his early years on the job, Hansen has become much more relaxed and media friendly over the years.
He also has the track record to back it up. There has been speculation this week that Declan Kidney could be set for a third installment as Munster’s head coach.
The Corkman’s return would make sense in many ways, but if Kidney is to stay put at London Irish – an exciting project he built from scratch with Les Kiss – then they should set their sights on Hansen.
It is said across the street that the Munster Chiefs, a group that includes CEO Ian Flanagan and the Professional Game Board, want to install a rugby director. A supervisor, a global client who will delegate and organize a larger coaching group under him. The Leinster model is a solid role model in this regard, with Leo Cullen in the foreground while Stuart Lancaster, Felipe Contepomi and Robin McBryde lead the show on the training ground.
Hansen would fit perfectly into the mold of a DOR. He also has a big black book. Putting together a world-class backstage team wouldn’t take too long. Wayne Smith would be at the top of such a list. Mike Cron is another top notch operator.
The Kiwis have always done well in Munster anyway. On and off the pitch, they’ve always settled in well. Rhys Ellison, Jason Holland, Mike Mullins, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Doug Howlett have all made a strong impression in the province.
Rob Penney felt like the right coach at the wrong time. The New Zealander’s expansive style seemed a few years too early for an aging group of players.
One wonders what he could have accomplished if he had decided to stay a third year in Limerick. It should be remembered that it took Pat Lam three years to get the Connacht automobile. It took Ireland 24 months to hit their stride under Andy Farrell and Mike Catt.
Perhaps it is time for Munster to turn to a New Zealander again. The operation is in desperate need of new enthusiasm and a new vision.
A great character with a bit of presence too. Someone who invests in youth. A motivator. Someone with a lot of experience. Winning experience at this. Someone like Hansen.