All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has paid rival coach Michael Cheika a compliment by saying the Wallabies have been “smarter” ahead of this year’s Bledisloe opener, by adding a practice match.
Hansen is usually in his element as a cheeky ringmaster ahead of clashes with the Wallabies, issuing straight-faced one-liners and predicting Cheika’s run-on team days out from the team naming.
And while there has been a touch of the Hansen stirring this year - he insisted on Thursday he was “just being honest” by bestowing favouritism on the Wallabies - there has appeared a more concerted effort by the Kiwi coach to talk up the Wallabies on this visit.
Whether it is Hansen’s confusion about why Australia don’t get the credit they deserve at home, or more likely a public attempt to not allow his all-conquering All Blacks get complacent about the Wallaby challenge, the coach continued to pump out the compliments at his team naming press conference in Double Bay.
“I just think it is going to be a good gutsy Test match and I think Australia are a better side than people give them credit for,” Hansen said.
In naming a team that welcomed back Brodie Rettalick and Kieran Read, and had the depth to put Anton Lienert-Brown on the bench and Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga in the stands, Hansen’s All Blacks look as dangerous as ever.
The Wallabies have been well beaten in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test matches in the last two years, and in the first halves in particular.
The combined scoreline from the opening 40 minutes of 2016 and 2017 was 72-9 to the Kiwis.
But this year Cheika walked back his opposition to pre-Bledisloe warm-up matches and held a successful trial match at Leichhardt Oval; something the All Blacks had been doing for several years.
That was a good call, according to Hansen.
“The Aussies have been smart this year and prepared probably a little better, for those guys who have been out of rugby for a while, they gave them a game the other day,” Hansen said.
“Which I think is a smart play. They will be hoping they get out of the blocks a lot quicker.
“I think they are a good side, they have improved a heck of a lot.
“They have done a lot of hard work on their running lines and their core set-piece roles, their scrum has got better looking at it against Ireland, their lineout they’ve quickened up a lot.
“And obviously their kicking game is good, so we’re obviously going to have to put a lot of pressure on all those areas to compete.”
Hansen rolled out the fun and mind games earlier in the week when he said the Wallabies even deserved to be favourites given they won the third Bledisloe Cup game in October last year.
That happily ignored the New Zealand dominance of Super Rugby this year, and Australia losing their June series to Ireland, but Hansen said the “favourites” comment wasn’t a calculated mental trick to light a fire under his players.
Though they're not quite as short as Winx at $1.12, the All Blacks are $1.24 favourites to win with the TAB, and the Wallabies are paying $4.10.
“I was just being honest. If it was a horse race, and the other horse wins the race, it has got to be the favourite.
“The TAB doesn’t see that but the TAB, they like making money."
“The 2018 team hasn’t had a win against Australia. We haven’t played them yet, so again, you can get caught up in the past or you can focus on what’s happening right now.
“You have two quality teams who are going to go head to head.”
Asked how he motivates his players to keep up the dominance over Australia - who haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 - Hansen said: “It is not my job to motivate. I don’t motivate anybody. Apart from myself.”
The job of the athlete is to motivate himself, so if he can’t motivate himself I don’t want him,” Hansen said.
“And he doesn’t get picked. Usually that helps them get motivated.”
“My job and the rest of the coaching and management group is to create an environment where a motivated athlete cam really perform and keep improving.”