Hansen misunderstands ambition

Date published: April 23 2014

Bundee Aki wants to play for Ireland and Gareth Anscombe's mother is Welsh, yet not aiming for the All Blacks is incomprehensible.

Bundee Aki wants to play for Ireland and Gareth Anscombe's mother is Welsh, yet aiming at not playing for the All Blacks is incomprehensible.

That is what Steve Hansen insinuated last week when asked about Aki's upcoming three-year deal to play for Connacht, following his former co-captain at the Chiefs, Craig Clarke, to the west of Ireland.

“It is frustrating and it is disappointing,” Hansen told the NZ Herald.

“Players here have a dream of playing for the All Blacks and then they suddenly give it up when an easier option comes along.

“It's not their dream but they decide to go for it and I think we need players with a bit more mental fortitude: a bit more of a constitution to dig in harder and fight for the dream they really want.”

It's worth remembering that exploring opportunities abroad was a path taken by Hansen between 2002 to 2004, when he coached Wales.

Of course being the coach of a national side is different to permanently pinning your colours to one mast as players must do when deciding which nation to represent in the professional era, but the crux of the decision is based on the same desire – to ply your trade elsewhere rather than your homeland where opportunities are limited.

Using the examples of Aki and Anscombe, the number of talented and arguably better players in the queue ahead of them for the All Blacks mean that it's no surprise the prospect of representing another nation is appealing.

Aki's path to an All Blacks jersey is blocked by Ma'a Nonu, Ryan Crotty, Francis Saili, Sonny Bill Williams (next year) and others.

Anscombe's situation is even worse – he has been used as a full-back pre-dominantly by the Chiefs, a position occupied by Israel Dagg and Charles Piutau, not to mention Ben Smith, while at fly-half there is the highest Test points scorer of all time in Dan Carter, followed by Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett.

Those three number tens are all world class and would probably start for any Test nation, yet they're all in the pecking order for the All Blacks. It's a blessed group of players, one which for all of his talent, Anscombe can't muscle his way into.

Predicting whether he would do so in the future is impossible – it's important to stress at this point that the talk of him moving to Wales and the Cardiff Blues is just that for now, talk. But his case is different to Aki, choosing to represent the country of his mother's origin.

Turning your back on the All Blacks isn't an act of cowardice. Accepting that you may never play for your country, in this case rugby's greatest country, must be one of the hardest decisions of all, requiring more mental fortitude than Hansen is suggesting.

The eligibility rules do need reforming, but for now while they exist in their current format it would be foolish for players – whose career's are limited to a few years – to turn their back on them.

Aki was perhaps too honest in admitting that he had signed for Connacht and after three years if he didn't make the Ireland side he would try and turn out for Samoa.

Yet he's a 24-year-old man with his whole future ahead of him who has leapt at an opportunity that will benefit his livelihood and family. In that sense he is the symbol of the modern game, not a coward. That is if he even makes the Ireland side, where the number of quality players include Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Fergus McFadden and more.

Extend the eligibility rule from three years to five and these situations will diminish, but Hansen is wrong to lash out at those players who want to play Test rugby but accept that they can't for the All Blacks.

They after all don't have the luxury he enjoyed of being able to build his experience at international level with one nation and then return home to do the same with New Zealand. The number of players from the Pacific Islands who sought greater success with the All Blacks than with Fiji or Samoa or Tonga seems to have been conveniently forgotten by Hansen too.

In the modern game, the stakes are different. The All Blacks have enough depth, even after next year's Rugby World Cup, to still succeed without those fringe players who move elsewhere.

by Ben Coles