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Opinion: All Blacks loss puts Hansen on the rocks

Monday 3 Dec 2012 5:54 a.m.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen (Reuters file)

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen (Reuters file)

As he ordered a drink at the bar back at the team hotel a few hours after his All Blacks had been dismantled by England, coach Steve Hansen admitted it was a loss that would take some getting over. The rocks, as the saying goes, would be uncomfortable under the beach towel for a while.

There are a small myriad of reasons why the All Blacks were off their game at Twickenham starting with the long season and ending with the bug that incapacitated many of the players at various times during the week building up to the match.

The long season is unavoidable and while those who are quick to note that the All Blacks draw and defeat came in games organised outside the formal test schedule just to raise money are right, they might also wonder how the game is funded without such matches.

The illness in the team was genuine. The second floor of the team's London hotel was a mini casualty ward on Tuesday and Wednesday with many of the players still drained by the constant vomiting and diarrhoea.

Halfback Aaron Smith said on Friday that he'd only just had his first breakfast that morning after two days of not eating. It showed in how he played - a fantastic debut season for the All Blacks ending with his most ineffective performance.

But none of that should detract from how England played. They were superb at Twickenham with the pack in commanding form while the backs tore through the All Blacks' defence.

It was their first win against the All Blacks since 2003 but probably their best performance against New Zealand since well before that.

Equally, the record defeat shouldn't detract from an impressive debut season for Hansen as head coach. His All Blacks went unbeaten through the new Rugby Championship with a stunning win in Johannesburg and a scintillating display of running rugby in Hamilton to beat Ireland. They won 12 of their 14 tests, with a loss and a draw, and retained the Bledisloe Cup along the way.

Hansen also started the regeneration of the All Blacks with the introduction of nine new players and - unlike Graham Henry's years as the drag-net fisherman of selectors - Hansen's new boys all look the goods.

But Hansen has some decent challenges ahead as he charts his course to retain the World Cup.

A key issue is the front row where Owen Franks is not the tighthead prop he once and two hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore are well into their 30s. Hika Elliot is a good player but he is unpopular with the seniors players so, at this stage, is only a stop gap hooker, and more needs to come from Dane Coles to give Hansen a decent option.

He has three good locks and Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano will only be better for this year's experiences. Likewise in the loose forwards where Liam Messam has to build on his break through year and Victor Vito find the courage to play his natural game more often.

There's some handy players coming through too in Brad Shields and Ardie Savea just as there will be good competition at halfback next year when a fit-again TJ Perenara is added to the mix.

Depth in the midfield is an issue with Ben Smith and Tamati Ellison needing to show in Super Rugby that they are worthy back up - though Smith might struggle to start at centre for the Highlanders since Ma' a Nonu's shifted south.

Julian Savea's had a superb debut season showing he is a genuine creator of tries as well as a finisher, and there's depth at the back now with Smith and Cory Jane able to cover at fullback.

Hansen's biggest challenge though is what tripped the All Blacks up at Twickenham - fatigue and the opposition. They have a similarly busy schedule next year and he knows that each team that plays the All Blacks sees it as the title fight.

There is no let up, no respite, no time when they can be slightly off their game.

They weren't at their best in London and England were good enough to take full advantage. They hit hard and they hit effectively.

If there is a positive for Hansen from what happened at Twickenham, is that the English blows hurt the All Blacks and his players will remember that when they meet again next November.

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