WELLINGTON, Sept 11 (Reuters) - New Zealand coach Steve Hansen wasted little time having a dig at their biggest World Cup challengers by reminding them they would be under almost as much pressure to win the Webb Ellis trophy as his side usually are.
The All Blacks are seeking their fourth title — and third in succession — in Japan and, while they enter it again as favourites, the ninth edition of the tournament is arguably the most open it has ever been.
Six Nations champions Wales, England, South Africa, New Zealand’s opponents in their Pool B opener, and Ireland are all genuine contenders for the title.
Australia, Scotland, Argentina and France are also all capable of beating any of the others in the knockout phase and then going on from there.
“That’s going to create expectations... and with those expectations comes pressure,” Hansen told reporters in Auckland last month when he named his 31-man squad.
“It will be interesting to see who can cope with it and who can’t because the tournament will demand they do.
“This is where we have a small advantage. We live there all the time. For some of these teams it’s going to be the first time they’re going to turn up and feel that pressure. It can be overwhelming when you haven’t had it before.”
Hansen’s assessment that the All Blacks live under constant scrutiny and pressure was no more evident than when they suffered a record 47-26 loss to Australia last month.
Rugby fans and pundits from around the globe questioned whether their golden age of success from 2004 was at an end.
They pointed to two defeats by Ireland, narrow wins over England and Scotland, a drawn series with the British & Irish Lions and a loss and draw versus the Springboks in the past three years as evidence they were locked in a downward spiral.
Critics also said Hansen’s tactics were becoming increasingly muddled and a sign he was struggling to find his preferred playing style, while the backline was getting squeezed by rush defences. Worse, the side was getting old.
But Hansen can point to four years ago when similar barbs were being fired, only for his team to build momentum throughout the tournament and clinch their third title, something the current side are showing signs of.
After New Zealand’s poor Rugby Championship — they narrowly beat Argentina, drew with South Africa and lost to Australia — they upped the intensity and accuracy against the Wallabies and blew them off Eden Park to retain the Bledisloe Cup.
They also produced a strong attacking performance against Tonga last Saturday and Hansen said the competition for starting spots was only likely to be ramped up in Japan.
Their biggest challenge in the pool phase will be against the Springboks on Sept. 21 before the games against Canada, Namibia and Italy, something Hansen said was ideal as they build towards the quarter-finals.
“I think its quite good playing them (the Springboks) first because it allows us to control what we do,” Hansen said.
“Regardless of what happens in the first game I know by the end of the (pool phase) we will be a better side.” (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Ken Ferris)