Steve Hansen, the former All Blacks head coach, believes Grand Slam winning Ireland still have to prove they are no longer World Cup “chokers” when they attempt to lift the trophy in France later this year.
Ireland have never reached the Cup semi-finals and while Hansen acknowledges they deserve to be ranked No1, previous performances on the biggest stage in the game are a factor.
Hansen, a two-time winner of the tournament in 2015 (head coach) and 2011 (assistant coach) with the All Blacks, said: “They’re going well, ranked number one in the world, and they’ve had a great year so far.
“Every time a team is number one in the world, you’ve got to consider them to be a World Cup contender – but it’s a tough tournament to win, and they were number one going into the last one, weren’t they? So, they’ve seemed to struggle a little bit at World Cups. If it was the All Blacks, they’d probably be called ‘chokers’.
“Ireland were good throughout the Six Nations. In that final game they started off a bit shaky and England rattled them a bit, but once the red card came it was game over and they were good enough to take advantage of it.
“But they’ve come a long way, they believe in themselves, and they’re a very good side, so they’re definitely a contender. But they’ll have to overcome the pressure of not having gone past the quarter-finals before, and there’ll be a lot of pressure involved in that.
“If they get through to the semi-finals, then they’re in new territory. That’s something they’ll have to deal with that they’ve never dealt with before, and it’s always hard to deal with something you haven’t dealt with before.”
Hansen is preparing to return to the test arena in charge of the World XV to take on Eddie Jones’ Barbarians side at Twickenham on Sunday 28 May (kick-off 3pm). Hansen sees the failure of England and Wales in the Six Nations as offering Jones and Wayne Pivac the chance to say “It wasn’t just the coaches, was it?’”
Jones was dumped by England with Steve Borthwick taking over with England finishing fourth in the table with just two wins while Pivac made way for Warren Gatland’s return to the Welsh job which saw him deliver just one win with a fifth-place finish.
Hansen said: “It’s an interesting time. The two coaches who got sacked from England and Wales (Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac) will be looking back thinking, ‘well, there you go. It wasn’t just the coaches, was it?’”
However, Hansen is backing Borthwick to make England a difficult team to beat at the World Cup adding: “England are still England; they can still pop up and they’ve got plenty of talent.
“Steve’s finding his way, both with his athletes and as a coach at international level, but they won’t be happy with how they’ve gone during the Six Nations. Early in the game against Ireland they played well, and if they take that sort of form into the World Cup, they’ll be a hard team to beat.
“Steve’s a smart enough man to drive his own bus, but nothing is an easy fix. He’s just got to take his time and do it the way he wants to do it.
“If it works, then he can take a bow, and if it doesn’t work, then he still knows he’s done it his way. The worst thing would be if he gets pressured into doing it another way which isn’t his, it fails and then he suffers the consequences.
“He needs to just be himself. It’s always a privilege to coach your country – every day in that role is a great day to be alive and to be enjoying the challenge of Test rugby.”
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