New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen on Thursday brushed off attempts to add spice to his team’s Rugby World Cup semifinal against England, dismissing claims of spying by England head coach Eddie Jones as “clickbait.”
Jones turned up the heat on Saturday’s final-four clash at International Stadium Yokohama when he told reporters Tuesday that someone had been filming an England training session at Arcs Urayasu Park in Chiba Prefecture from the window of a nearby apartment block. Jones did not directly accuse New Zealand of being behind the incident, and suggested it could have been a Japanese fan.
Hansen said Thursday that Jones had since been in touch but that the two had not discussed the spying claim, and New Zealand’s head coach was in no mood to take the matter further when he named his team for the game.
“Eddie and I both know all’s fair in love and war,” said Hansen. “There’s nothing better in war than to throw a wee distraction out there. You guys can’t resist. Best clickbait in the world. He didn’t call us out — he very deliberately didn’t go there. He talked about it being somebody else, probably the same bloke that videoed us when we were there.
“It’s only a mind game if you buy into it. We’re not buying into it. It’s allowed us to have a good laugh. I’m chuckling away. I get a text: ‘How are you going, Steve?’ ‘Pretty good, Eddie.’ He’s laughing, I’m laughing. You guys are getting what you want because everyone’s clicking on the bait. We’re wasting time talking about it now.”
Jones also suggested Tuesday that the All Blacks would have “pressure chasing them down the street” as they try to take a step closer to a third straight Rugby World Cup title, while England would have “nothing to lose.”
Hansen acknowledged that New Zealand had failed to deal with pressure in past World Cups, but reminded reporters that England is looking to bounce back from a humiliating first-round exit when it hosted the previous tournament in 2015.
“There is pressure,” said Hansen. “It’s a big game. But it would be very naive to think that there’s not pressure on both sides. When you can publicly acknowledge that it’s on you, there’s an awareness. That same pressure is running down the same street that he’s on.
“He’s trying to take the pressure off his own side by getting everyone to talk to us about pressure. Smart move, but I’m not buying into it and my players aren’t buying into it. We know we’re under pressure. We don’t need Eddie to tell us. What he needs to work out is, what are England going to do about the pressure they’re under?”
Hansen made one change to the starting lineup that beat Ireland 46-14 in last Saturday’s quarterfinal, with Scott Barrett replacing Sam Cane in the back row. Ardie Savea moves to openside flanker to accommodate Barrett at blindside.
Eight of New Zealand’s starting lineup also started the All Blacks’ last game against England — a 16-15 win at Twickenham in November last year — but captain Kieran Read knows the nature of a World Cup semifinal makes Saturday’s game a unique occasion.
“For us, a big game is a big game, and no matter where it is in the world or who we’re playing, the expectation is to play well,” said Read. “But the semifinal is different, so you can’t expect the same preparation that you’ve used to work in a game like this. We can’t just roll into this one. The English are going to be right on edge and we need to match that and be even more hungry for it.”
England booked its place in the semifinal by beating Australia 40-16 in Oita last Saturday, establishing a solid first-half lead and then acting quickly to snuff out the Wallabies’ attempts at a comeback.
New Zealand fullback Beauden Barrett was impressed by the nature of England’s victory, but he insists the onus is on the All Blacks to make sure they are ready for the challenge.
“I wasn’t surprised by how expansive England played, and can play,” said Barrett. “For a number of years now, they’ve had really skillful backs and forwards who can play an expansive game but also a physical game as required.
“We have to get our preparation right. No two test matches are the same, so how we prepare — it’s crucial that we do it right so we can turn up on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the right space to do what’s required to get the job done.”