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Acknowledging the need to “bottle the pain” wasn’t how Steve Hansen wanted to prepare for his final days in charge of the All Blacks.
Yet there wasn’t much else the head coach could say after the All Blacks were comprehensively outplayed by England, who beat them 19-7 in the World Cup semifinal in Yokohama.
Hansen knew he and his All Blacks had blown it.
So, too, captain Kieran Read. He, like his coach, won’t be around for the 2020 season.
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Hansen, having worked for eight years as head coach and eight as an assistant under Sir Graham Henry, is leaving NZ Rugby.
Read, widely considered the All Blacks’ greatest No 8, is also finishing up a test career that began in late 2008.
Their final days in New Zealand’s flagship rugby team should have revolved around them talking about the final and defending the Webb Ellis Cup. That’s if everything had gone to plan at Yokohama Stadium.
Instead their hopes of a title three-peat were wrenched away by an England side inspired by coach Eddie Jones, leaving the All Blacks to choke back tears and admit they didn’t front when it mattered most.
In the space of 80 minutes in Japan, four years’ hard work had been rendered worthless.
When Richie McCaw stepped down as All Blacks captain after lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second consecutive time in London in late 2015, Hansen and his management team started planning for the next tournament in Japan.
Promoting No 8 Read as openside flanker McCaw’s successor was done swiftly, and with little fuss. There were few, if any, dissenters.
There was nothing to suggest Read, 29 at the time, wasn’t the right man; he had previously captained the All Blacks on nine occasions, and for several seasons had also been the leader of the Crusaders.
Hansen said Read was marked for leadership duties early in his career.
“He’s a special player. I have been lucky enough to work with him for a long, long time,” Hansen said. “We identified early that he would be the next leader after Richie.
“He would have led a lot more games but for a guy that played 148 test matches. Flankers aren’t meant to do that. He, himself, played a lot of rugby in a position that is tough.”
If Hansen was the general of the All Blacks’ machine, Read filled the role of the loyal officer out in the field. It was his job to accept orders, to shoulder the responsibility of making sure the team gave maximum output in games and during trainings.
Sitting at the bottom of the world, with a small population of almost five million, means NZ Rugby, who in April announced a $1.9 million loss for the 2018 financial year, must fight for every dollar it receives.
It’s the All Blacks who help rake in the majority of their income. The Black Ferns, the NZ sevens men’s and women’s teams and the NZ under-20 sides have had their share of successes over the years, but if you’re going cap in hand for dollars in a foreign market there’s only one team that matters.
Unlike the Six Nations unions, who reap massive dividends thanks to the popularity of that grand old competition and the broadcasters supplying their product to a much bigger market in Europe, NZ Rugby does it tough.
So the pressure on the All Blacks to not only remain relevant, but to dominate, never wavers.
Hansen, who replaced Henry as head coach after the 2011 World Cup, and Read hardly needed to be reminded of their responsibilities.
Which is why the failure to keep the Webb Ellis Cup will be so painful.
NZ Rugby still has a powerful brand in the All Blacks, but when they sit down to negotiate deals with corporate partners they won’t be able to use the World Cup winners tag as a bargaining chip.
If Hansen and Read are honest, they will admit the scoreline against England flattered the All Blacks.
Yet there were few indicators this team was going to crash out of title contention. Their willingness to attack was being celebrated by all and sundry, and the 46-14 win over Ireland in the quarterfinal suggested they should have the edge over England.
Yet they were taught a lesson by the men in white. The following day, Hansen, Read, Sam Whitelock and Beauden Barrett spoke in an emotionally charged press conference on the 25th floor at the plush Royal Park Hotel in Shiodome, Tokyo.
The All Blacks still had to play the bronze final against Wales in Tokyo, Read’s 127th test, but no-one goes to a World Cup to collect the booby prize.
You could have heard a door slam on the ground floor as Hansen and Read battled to keep their emotions in check.
Read fought back the tears as he explained what it was like to return to his hotel room after the defeat, and discover the cards his three children had left for him on his 34th birthday.
Hansen had to stop and compose himself by taking a
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