Hansen: Weight of expectation could be Ireland’s toughest Rugby World Cup opponent


With unbeaten Six Nations and Autumn Nations campaigns and a series victory in New Zealand under their belts inside the last 12 months, there’s no question Ireland have earned their status as the top-ranked side heading into this year’s Rugby World Cup.

But Steve Hansen, a two-time winner of the tournament in 2015 (head coach) and 2011 (assistant coach) with the All Blacks, insists the ‘world number one’ tag brings with it a pressure that will be Ireland’s cross to bear as they look to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time.

Andy Farrell’s side secured a Six Nations Grand Slam on Saturday, their first in the championship since 2018, courtesy of a 29-16 win over England in Dublin. 

But when it comes to the World Cup, historically Ireland have struggled, and they are yet to reach the semi-finals in eight attempts at rugby’s greatest prize – and Hansen believes that regardless of their impressive form, clearing that particular hurdle will not be something Ireland are taking lightly.

“Ireland were good throughout the Six Nations,” he said. “In that final game they started off a bit shaky and England rattled them a bit, but once the red card came it was game over and they were good enough to take advantage of it. 

“They’re going well, ranked number one in the world, and they’ve had a great year so far. 

“Every time a team is number one in the world, you’ve got to consider them to be a World Cup contender – but it’s a tough tournament to win, and they were number one going into the last one, weren’t they? 

“So, they’ve seemed to struggle a little bit at World Cups. If it was the All Blacks, they’d probably be called ‘chokers’. 

“But they’ve come a long way, they believe in themselves, and they’re a very good side, so they’re definitely a contender. But they’ll have to overcome the pressure of not having gone past the quarter-finals before, and there’ll be a lot of pressure involved in that.

“If they get through to the semi-finals, then they’re in new territory. That’s something they’ll have to deal with that they’ve never dealt with before, and it’s always hard to deal with something you haven’t dealt with before.”

While Ireland have tasted nothing but success in recent times, on the other end of the spectrum is England, who recorded a disappointing fourth-place finish in Steve Borthwick’s first Six Nations at the helm.

And while it may take some time to turn the Red Rose’s fortunes around, Hansen is urging the England head coach to stick to his guns in the months ahead.

He said: “England are still England; they can still pop up and they’ve got plenty of talent. 

“Steve’s finding his way, both with his athletes and as a coach at international level, but they won’t be happy with how they’ve gone during the Six Nations. Early in the game against Ireland they played well, and if they take that sort of form into the World Cup, they’ll be a hard team to beat.

“Steve’s a smart enough man to drive his own bus, but nothing is an easy fix. He’s just got to take his time and do it the way he wants to do it. 

“If it works, then he can take a bow, and if it doesn’t work, then he still knows he’s done it his way. The worst thing would be if he gets pressured into doing it another way which isn’t his, it fails and then he suffers the consequences.

“He needs to just be himself. It’s always a privilege to coach your country – every day in that role is a great day to be alive and to be enjoying the challenge of Test rugby.

“It’s an interesting time. The two coaches who got sacked from England and Wales [Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac] will be looking back thinking, ‘well, there you go. It wasn’t just the coaches, was it?’”

Since leaving his post as New Zealand head coach in 2019, Hansen has been working as a consultant with Japanese Top League outfit Toyota Verblitz.

But 2023 marks a return to the world stage for the 63-year-old, with Hansen set to lead the World XV which will face Eddie Jones’ Barbarians side at Twickenham on Sunday 28 May (kick-off 2pm).

A string of rugby’s most exciting players – including Semi Radradra, Marika Koroibete and Ngani Laumape – have all been confirmed to be appearing for the World XV and Hansen admits he cannot wait to return to Twickenham for what is set to be an epic clash.

“Like many Fijian players, Semi’s strong, fast, and a good athlete,” he said. “Fijians always just naturally know how to play footy. They love the running aspects of the game, and they play a lot of sevens, so they’re highly skilled and always brings that bit of x-factor. 

“I know a lot about Ngani from his All Black days. Before he had a little injury [in Japan] he was playing outstanding rugby. Marika is just a wonderful player; lots of energy and he works for 80 minutes. 

“So, I’m just really looking forward to working with them all, and excited about the game because it’s going to be played in the right manner.

“Traditionally, you want a Barbarians game to be open and flowing, and a World XV game is the same. This event gets you a combination of both those teams – and both coaches will treat it with the respect that it deserves. 

“Whilst both sides will have a little bit of fun during the week, come Saturday they’ll have the freedom to express themselves and pour it out on the park. I’m sure we’ll see a wonderfully high-skilled spectacle that hopefully people will come along and really, really enjoy.”

General admission tickets for the blockbuster Barbarian F.C. vs World XV clash are on sale now from www.ticketmaster.co.uk/barbarians at the early-bird price of just £25* for Adults and £15* for Under-16s.

For a 10% discount on groups of ten or more, please visit www.eticketing.co.uk/rfu/events. Hospitality packages are available to purchase from £299 per person via www.twickenhamstadium.com.

*booking fees apply