Steve Hansen: World Cup matters more to All Blacks than top ranking

Coach concedes he is more concerned about solving selection conundrum ahead of big tournament

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 17: Beauden Barrett of the All Blacks and head coach Steve Hansen celebrate with the Bledisloe Cup after winning the 2019 Rugby Championship Test Match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australian Wallabies at Eden Park on August 17, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
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New Zealand may have conceded the No 1 spot in the world rugby union rankings to Wales at the weekend, but that is not a matter of concern for Steve Hansen, he said on Sunday. Instead, the coach is looking at how to solve the World Cup selection conundrum before it kicks off in Japan on September 20.

Despite scoring five unanswered tries to beat Australia and retain the Bledisloe Cup with a 36-0 romp in Auckland on Saturday, the All Blacks lost the top ranking for the first time in 10 years, replaced by Wales courtesy of their 13-6 win against England in Cardiff.

But Hansen said it was the World Cup and not world rankings that mattered, and the way his reshaped side bounced back from losing to the Wallabies the previous week raised several questions to be answered before finalising a 31-man squad in 10 days.

"I've never understood their [ranking] system. You win a game and you lose the top ranking," Hansen said while spelling out the All Blacks' priority. "We just need to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to go to the World Cup and win that."

After the 47-26 hiding by the Wallabies in Perth last week, Hansen's decision to drop three established players – Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Owen Franks – produced eye-catching performances from their raw replacements Sevu Reece, George Bridge and Nepo Laulala.

As the All Blacks pummelled the Wallabies across the park, Hansen said several players put their hand up for a ticket to Tokyo.

"Where we had question marks we no longer have questions marks, but in other ways it makes it tougher, too," Hansen said listing tighthead prop, the midfield and outside backs and whether to take an extra six or an extra lock as key issues.

Bridge and Reece were particularly prominent with Hansen saying that put pressure on the other wing contenders.

"There's an old saying 'never give a sucker an even break because he'll take it'. Now we've got some genuine competition and it will be good to see how it unfolds."

Hansen confirmed the shoulder injury that saw Richie Mo'unga leave the field was not serious, and injured lock Brodie Retallick remained in the frame to make the Cup squad.

However, he had no word on whether strongman Liam Squire would change his mind after the blindside flanker asked not to be considered for the World Cup for undisclosed reasons.

Meanwhile, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika conceded he was hurting after watching the All Blacks crush his Bledisloe Cup dream, as selectors prepared to sift through the debris and pick their World Cup squad.

"Yeah, it hurt last night, it hurts now and is going to hurt for a while because the opportunity [to win the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup] has gone," Cheika said on his arrival back in Sydney.

"But we will be back next year. The Wallabies will be going there hard and strong to compete and try and get the trophy.

"But that's down the track. Now it's about making sure we get the right selection as best we can and take that to the [World] Cup."

Cheika will sit down with his fellow selectors this week to pick the squad he hopes can go one better in Japan than their 2015 campaign when they finished runners-up to the All Blacks.

The squad is due to be announced on Friday, ahead of a final warm-up Test against Samoa in Sydney on September 7.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 17: Head Coach Michael Cheika of the Wallabies looks on after losing The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australian Wallabies at Eden Park on August 17, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
Australia coach Michael Cheika looks on after his team lost to New Zealand on Saturday. Anthony Au-Yeung / Getty Images

So far this year, Australia have won two Tests (against Argentina and New Zealand) and lost two (South Africa and New Zealand), which Cheika said was a big improvement from 2018 when they played 13 and tasted victory in just four.

"We've really been pleased with the improvement from last year," he said, putting a brave face on the New Zealand thrashing. "I think we've seen a difference in the team, a difference in the goals off the field as well, and the camaraderie."

The core of the squad going to Japan will already be settled, but Cheika insisted the door remained open to some players who have only been on the periphery so far this year.

He pointed to young flanker Jack Dempsey, prop Tom Robertson and fullback Jack Maddocks.

"There's still highly competitive competition for some positions and it will depend on the composition of the squad, how many forwards, how many backs, specialist positions," he said.

"Sometimes you might go with form, sometimes with potential and some with possible combinations you're thinking of."

Apart from the injury enforced change of Adam Coleman for Rory Arnold at lock, the Wallabies kept the same line-up for Saturday's match after their Perth upset.

But the All Blacks pack outmuscled them while Richie Mo'unga pulled the strings at fly-half to keep the Wallaby backs scrambling in the five-tries-to-nil masterpiece.