KYOTO – New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen hinted Wednesday that the All Blacks could play a match in Japan before they defend their title here at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“Over the next two years, we’ve got a lot of time to prepare and get a really good understanding of what it is that we’re going to have to do if we’re going to be competitive in this Rugby World Cup,” Hansen said at the tournament draw in Kyoto, where New Zealand was paired in a first-round group with South Africa, Italy, a qualifier from Africa and the winner of the repechage qualifying tournament.
“Obviously the weather, the heat and the humidity is something that we’re going to plan for and we’re going to do that. Will we play Japan or any games in Japan between now and then? We’ll have to wait and see, but it wouldn’t be a silly idea, would it? It would be a good idea. I’ll take the idea on board and talk to my boss.”
Several of the world’s leading teams are scheduling matches in Japan in the buildup to Asia’s first World Cup, with coaches and players keen to experience the conditions before the tournament begins for real.
Ireland and Romania will play test matches against Japan in Kumamoto, Shizuoka and Tokyo this June, while 2015 runner-up Australia is set to play the Brave Blossoms at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama — the venue for the 2019 final — in November.
“For our match against Japan in November, it’s an excellent opportunity for us to come out here,” said Australia head coach Michael Cheika, whose team was drawn in Pool D with Wales, Georgia and qualifiers from the Americas and Oceania zones for the first round in 2019.
“They’ve pushed teams right to the edge, their players are getting experience against other international teams now on a regular basis, and I think they’re going to be a very difficult proposition in November. And we’re hoping that we’re going to put on a great match in Yokohama.”
New Zealand will be looking to win the trophy in 2019 for the third straight tournament and fourth time overall, and Hansen is unruffled by the thought of playing two-time champion South Africa in the group stage.
“I don’t think it makes any difference,” he said. “Any one of those top eight teams that you could get paired up with are going to be tough. In this case we get South Africa and they’re a team that knows us really well, we know them very well, there’s a lot of good history between the two teams.
“And it will be one of the games of the tournament. Hopefully we both play really great rugby and inspire the tournament to go to a higher level.”
New Zealand beat Australia 34-17 in the 2015 final after the Wallabies emerged from a tough first-round group that included host England, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay.
Australia will again have to face Wales and possibly Fiji when it begins its 2019 campaign, but Cheika insists that he and his players are thinking only about themselves.
“I think, with everything we’re going through at the moment and what the plans are going forward, we have a very clear focus of what’s important, and that’s us,” he said. “As we did in ’15 as well, we didn’t think about the other teams in our pool.
“The perception that when you come to a game of rugby, one team is easier than other is all blown out the window, especially when you come to international level. Because when you’re standing out there and they’re playing the national anthem and you’re getting ready to play, all the form, all the things you thought should have been, don’t happen. Unless you’ve got a laser focus on yourself and how you’re going to play the game.”
A laser focus is something that the All Blacks know all about, and Hansen believes that Wednesday’s draw has brought the 2019 tournament a step closer.
“It’s a starting point of knowing that this World Cup is in progress,” he said. “The next stage is to find out where the games are going to be. And then you can go away and sort out where you’re going to train and stay and get that side of it right.
“So it’s exciting. It just brings it alive a little bit more. While we have some big games to play soon, we now have a Rugby World Cup at the back of our minds that we have to start planning for, and we’ve got some clear guidelines on where we’re going. That’s important for us.”