British and Irish Lions tour: Steve Hansen says All Blacks are better than in 2005

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
Hansen on 'best ever' Lions squad
British and Irish Lions 2017
Date: 3 June-8 July Venue: New Zealand
Coverage: Live text commentary on every match on the BBC Sport website and mobile app.

The All Blacks have a better team now than the Dan Carter and Richie McCaw-inspired group that whitewashed the Lions on their last tour of New Zealand in 2005, says coach Steve Hansen.

Hansen was assistant to Graham Henry when the All Blacks beat Sir Clive Woodward's team 3-0 12 summers ago.

He told BBC Radio 5 live: "I think it's a more complete side now.

"If you look across the board there are one or two positions where we're stronger."

Flanker McCaw retired after leading the All Blacks to World Cup final victories in 2011 and 2015, while fly-half Carter quit international rugby after the latter of those wins.

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Hansen said: "McCaw and Carter were very special players, and probably all-time greats.

"But we're better at the line-out because we've got more height there. I think it's a slightly stronger side."

'Lions fans have reason for optimism'

With the Lions missing talismanic number eight Billy Vunipola through injury, and with the majority of the tourists' players having just finished a punishing domestic season, the All Blacks are clear favourites to win the series.

Two of the three Tests will be played at Eden Park in Auckland, where New Zealand have not lost a match in 23 years. Not since 2009 have they lost a home Test anywhere across the North and South Islands.

Hansen does not believe Vunipola's absence to be as critical as many in the northern hemisphere fear, nor that the Lions should be cowed by recent precedent.

"Billy is a quality player. It'll be a loss. But somebody will step up; I'm a firm believer that one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity," he said.

"James Haskell is a good player, he knows New Zealand well, he's played Super Rugby, and after missing out the first time he'll be keen to show he should have been picked in the first place.

"I don't think I have to give Lions supporters any reason for optimism. I think they've already got it. They'll be coming out here with reasonably large expectations that they can win the series.

"This is a good team. If I were a Lions supporter coming down I'd think, we've got four countries coming up against one - we should win.

"That's an expectation the Lions will have to bear on their shoulders, because it's going to be there, whether they like it or not. It's just like where we come from - we have that expectation all the time. And you can either run from it or accept it and get on with it."

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Carisbrook, 1971 - 'Wow'

It was during the famous 1971 series - the only one the Lions have won in New Zealand - that Hansen first fell in love with the game of rugby.

"The first Test I ever went to was the Lions one at Carisbrook in 1971," he said.

"It was a pretty good Test match. I remember the size of the two teams. I watched the match pretty close to the sidelines, and the sheer force and impact - I thought, wow, these guys are massive…"

Hansen's father Des was a long-time coach with club side Marist and the man who developed his son's interest in how the game should be played.

"He was ahead of his time as a coach," said Hansen.

"If you look back at that series, the Lions were given a lot of kudos for being a running side, but they did kick the ball a lot, and the All Blacks actually outscored them in tries across the series. But they played smart rugby, and there's a lesson to be learned there."

'A challenge that's right up our alley'

Hansen is not known for public displays of emotion. Even in becoming the first All Blacks coach to win the World Cup on foreign soil he was relatively restrained, but he says the series ahead excites him as much as that achievement.

"We're looking forward to this challenge immensely," he said. "It's one of the best sides that have toured here for a long time, if not their best side.

"It's the creation of four countries pouring in the best they've got, and the best they've got are playing pretty well at the moment - you only have to look at the last Six Nations, where there was some very good rugby played by some very good players.

"It's an opportunity for us to measure ourselves. We're a team who always try to be better than we were before - we don't always do that, but we're trying to - and this is a challenge that's right up our alley. "

Full British and Irish Lions tour schedule
3 June - Provincial Union Team, Whangarei
7 June - Blues, Auckland
10 June - Crusaders, Christchurch
13 June - Highlanders, Dunedin
17 June - Maori All Blacks, Rotorua
20 June - Chiefs, Hamilton
24 June - All Blacks, Auckland
27 June - Hurricanes, Wellington
1 July - All Blacks, Wellington
8 July - All Blacks, Auckland

'It's not all crash and bash'

Hansen believes there is a fundamental difference between rugby players from the northern and southern hemispheres.

"I don't think there's a difference in skill, but I do think environmentally there's a difference," he said.

"As a kid growing up in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and even the south of France, the weather conditions are conducive to being outside all the time, and you're developing athletic muscle that's natural.

"Your agility and your guile is being built. In the nations that produce the Lions, the game has issues with weather for large parts of the season. So as children growing you're not outside as much, climbing trees and doing all the things that build natural muscle. And I think that makes a little bit of a difference.

"It doesn't mean to say those players can't have the same skills, but when it's hosing down or sleeting, it's not as conducive to running with the ball, and it develops your game in a different way.

"You watch your competitions up there and the game is subtly starting to change. It's not all crash and bash. And maybe that's a reflection of the last World Cup, when you didn't get the results you wanted.

"People have had a look and thought, maybe we need to have a look at how we're playing."

Listen to the full interview on the Dawson and Mehrtens Lions Show on BBC Radio 5 live from 20:00 BST on Thursday, 1 June.


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