WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Having gone from hunter to the “hunted” after a brilliant 2018 season, Ireland are struggling to deal with the pressure of being the “top dog” of world rugby during their Six Nations campaign, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has said.
Six Nations Grand Slam winners last year, Ireland’s title defence got off to a poor start with a 32-20 thrashing by England at home and they have yet to hit top gear in wins over Scotland and Italy.
The players have betrayed their frustrations, with flyhalf Johnny Sexton tearing a strip off his team mates during the unconvincing win over Italy.
Hansen, whose world champion team suffered a stunning 16-9 loss to Ireland in November, their first ever defeat in Dublin, said great expectations around Joe Schmidt’s side were taking a toll as the World Cup approached.
“I said it at the time when we played Ireland that whoever won that game was going to be viewed as the number one team in the world and everyone is going to chase them,” Hansen said in comments published by New Zealand media on Wednesday.
“For us that’s something we’ve been used to. We’ve been ranked the number one team for 112 months now, I think, but people have seen Ireland as the top dog after they beat us, and that put a massive amount of expectation on the players and coaches.
“Instead of being the hunters they are the hunted and it’s different. It’s different when you’re sitting at the top of the tree. It’s a different experience. Not many teams cope with it that well.”
Ireland are third on the Six Nations table on nine points behind leaders Wales (12) and England (10) but can keep their title defence alive with victory over France at home on Sunday.
Hansen was impressed with the quality of the rugby in the northern hemisphere tournament and said all six teams had improved ahead of the World Cup in Japan, which starts in September.
“They’re all capable of knocking off a big team,” he said. “There’s been some brutal tests.”
The All Blacks have to wait until the condensed Rugby Championship in July for their next test, leaving Hansen to monitor his World Cup prospects in Super Rugby.
Local media, accustomed to New Zealand dominating the mainly southern hemisphere tournament, have been dismayed by the poor start of some of the nation’s teams, with the Auckland Blues and Waikato Chiefs winless after the opening three rounds.
Hansen was unconcerned, however, and said a policy to rest and limit the playing minutes of All Blacks to try and keep them fresh for the World Cup was always going to have an impact.
“I don’t get too carried away with Super Rugby until halfway through, then you start to get a clearer picture about who is doing what,” he said.
“You’ve got to give (the players) a break, and there’s always a consequence for that break. To say New Zealand teams aren’t playing well, I don’t think that’s a fair reflection of what’s actually happening.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Nick Mulvenney