All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is predicting a “mighty clash” in this weekend’s heavyweight World Cup semi-final with England, but insisted they were not New Zealand’s biggest rugby rivals.
The treble-chasing All Blacks have won their last six meetings against England dating back to 2013 and 15 of their last 16.
Eddie Jones’s side are riding high after smashing Australia 40-16 in the last eight, but Hansen attempted to play down New Zealand’s rivalry with the English.
“It will be a mighty clash, but I think South Africa will always be our biggest rival – because of the history that comes with it,” Hansen said Tuesday following the 46-14 rout of Ireland at the weekend.
“And the fact we play each other so regularly. We’ve played England once in the last (five) years so it’s hard to build a rivalry when you don’t play each other.”
Hansen added: “If we could get the Six Nations to come on board with a global season then we might able to do that. Once they do that, they’re starting to think about the game, rather than themselves – there’s a headline for you.”
Despite New Zealand’s traditional dominance, Hansen feels that history will count for nothing against England in Yokohama.
“History is history – it’s about creating new history,” he said.
“You’re playing in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup, so there will be pressure on both sides,” he added.
“The key thing will be how to manage it – you crack that nut then you give yourself a great opportunity.”
Hansen admitted that England had “come a long way” since their horror 2015 World Cup when they became the first tournament hosts to crash out in the pool stage under Stuart Lancaster.
On England’s quarter-final thrashing of the Wallabies, Hansen said: “They took all their opportunities. Some were given to them but you’ve still got to take them. They’re a good side.”
Sowing seeds of doubt
Jones has described New Zealand as “the greatest team there’s ever been in sport” in the build-up and the cricket-mad Aussie likened the task of toppling the All Blacks to bowling out Australia’s star batsman Steve Smith.
Hansen, though, is too wise to get sucked into any mind games by his wily, old foe.
“That’s a really nice statement,” he grinned, ever mindful Jones has a reputation as something of a wind-up merchant.
“I’m sure Eddie believes that but he’s also being quite kind.
“It’s a real thing,” Hansen replied when asked about the kidology that goes on before big games.
“But sometimes you’re better not to go there. Eddie is a smart man – he knows me well, I know him.”
New Zealand beat England 16-15 when the teams squared off at Twickenham last November and Hansen expects another nail-biter this weekend.
“It’s our job to put doubt into their heads,” he said.
“That’s part of what rugby is about – how quickly you can learn and adapt on the park in the heat of the moment.”
Both New Zealand and England had their final pool games washed out by a violent typhoon two weeks ago, but Hansen believes his team are coming to the boil nicely.
“You don’t get performances like the ones we and England had (in the quarter-finals) without emptying the tank,” he said.
“Now it’s about being smart, getting clarity around the game and dealing with the stuff on Saturday really humming.”