All Blacks coach Steve Hansen admitted he got his big selection wrong for this ill-fated Rugby World Cup semifinal against England, but was not about to throw his young utility forward Scott Barrett under the bus in the aftermath.
Hansen rolled the dice when he brought Barrett in at No 6 to start this huge clash against Eddie Jones’ England in the first of the semifinals at the International Stadium, but it did not produce the desired result as the All Blacks were shaded at the lineout and smashed in the breakdown battle throughout a 19-7 defeat in which they barely fired a shot.
Usual starting loose forward Sam Cane came on for Barrett at halftime, but by then the damage was done (England led 10-0) and the northern hemisphere side had the momentum and belief that was always going to take some stopping.
Asked by Stuff at the post-match press conference whether he felt he got the selection wrong, Hansen was honest and transparent in his answer as the All Blacks suffered their first World Cup defeat since 2007’s infamous Cardiff quarterfinal shocker.
“If I turn round and say it backfired, then Scott is going to feel pretty average. So I’m not going to turn round and say it backfired. I’ll take that one on the chin,” said Hansen of a rare selection misfire on his behalf.
“Scott came out and played as well as he could. Did we want to win some more lineout ball? Yes we did. But we didn’t. It takes more than one person to do that.”
Then Hansen conceded he got it wrong with the call.
“If we had our time again we might consider doing something different,” he concluded.
With Barrett in the No 6 jersey, Ardie Savea replaced Cane at openside flanker in a reshuffle talked up during the week as one Hansen had to make to beef up his pack against England’s big units.
However that ignored the fact that Jones himself was going with twin tearaways on his flanks in the form of the brilliant Sam Underhill and explosive Tom Curry. The pair led a dominant breakdown effort from the men in white throughout.
It was one of many wins within the win for Jones on a night when he out-thought his rival coach in most aspects of the game. Right from their haka encroachment, the English were on the front foot throughout.
Hansen had been happy to run with his own pair of sevens hitherto, with Savea and Cane starting the runaway quarterfinal victory over Ireland and both playing well.
It was, in hindsight, a needless risk from the experienced All Blacks coach, as it allowed the English to establish their superiority at the breakdown from the opening whistle and handed them all the early momentum. Make your own mind up on it, but maybe he was spooked into it.
Hansen was certainly taking plenty on the chin in the aftermath of this comprehensive defeat, denying his team had come up drastically short of any marks on Saturday night in Yokohama, but had just been outplayed by a better side.
“It’s disappointing … [but] the big difference with ’07 (their last World Cup defeat) is the fact that we stepped up to the plate today. We played as well as we possibly could – we just got beaten by a better team. We have to take that on the chin.
“As hard as that is to stomach, that’s what happens in sport sometimes. We see the character of people when they win and we’ve got to see the same character when they lose,” he said.
Hansen, though, conceded his side had been a distant second in the intrinsic aspects of test rugby.
“They created the go-forward and we struggled to dominate them at set-piece time or breakdown time. When you’re going forward you get all the 50-50 decisions, the scoreboard goes [against you] and you start having to chase it, and start making fundamental errors like getting offside at the breakdown because you’re desperate, and start offloading balls you probably wouldn’t have to if the scoreboard was in your favour.
“We just got in a situation where England were better than us and dominated the parts of the game we wanted to dominate. That’s why you’ve got to give them credit.”
Not that England’s dominance made it any easier to take for a coach who lost all his personal battles on this night.
“The boys are desperately hurting. You put a lot of time, effort and energy into coming to win the thing and if you don’t achieve that you have to put your big boy’s pants on and stand up and be counted.
“They’re a good team, there’s no shame in getting beaten by them. [But] there’s a lot of hurt in it, and that hurt and adversity will feed a lot more All Black teams in the future. So we can find one positive out of it.”
The All Blacks must now shake off the emotional defeat before Friday night’s dreaded bronze medal match against either South Africa or Wales. It’s the clash no one wants to play but is the lot of a semifinal loser. Not so much a consolation prize as a booby one.
This content was originally published here.