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The criticism Wales have been facing will make them tighter, it will make them more dangerous

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 23, 2012

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AS the man plotting their next downfall, Steve Hansen has little sympathy for Wales — but he can certainly relate to their current plight.

New Zealand's head coach is in Cardiff at the moment, devising how best to extend Wales's losing streak to six games when the All Blacks visit the Millennium Stadium tomorrow.

Unlike his players or coaching staff, though, Hansen has first-hand experience of how it feels to lead a downtrodden, despairing Welsh side.

As Wales coach from 2002 until 2004, Hansen oversaw a tempestuous period for the game in Wales.

During his tenure, the regions were born and the national side underwent a turbulent rebuilding process which included a run of 11 consecutive defeats.

It was a painful procedure at times, though a spirited performance at the 2003 World Cup hinted at a brighter future.

Hansen always maintained that initial setbacks came as necessary collateral for longer-term success, and so it proved as some of the players he introduced to international rugby went on to win three Grand Slams for Wales.

The glow of goodwill which emanated from the most recent of those clean sweeps earlier this year is now little more than a flickering ember in the corner of a darkened room.

A summer whitewash to Australia and desolate home defeats by Argentina and Samoa have left Wales with a gloomy outlook for the remainder of this autumn series.

With the reigning world champions coming to Cardiff tomorrow, it would seem Wales are there for the taking.

But as Hansen prepares to face Wales as an opposing head coach for the first time, the 53-year-old is wary of his former side.

"I don't have too much sympathy for them — I'm in the opposition camp these days," said Hansen, who succeeded former Wales coach Graham Henry at the All Blacks' helm following last year's World Cup.

"But what I do know is that it will make them tighter. Invariably, when they get criticised, they get tighter. It will make them more dangerous, I think.

"I'm not taking too much notice of their recent form. They're Grand Slam winners, they're World Cup semi-finalists.

"Perhaps they have taken their eye off the ball a wee bit looking at this game. We know for sure this is the one they are chasing — we have to be up for it."

Sounding a note of cautious respect, Hansen knows how the Millennium Stadium can whip up the sort of fervour which would be ripe for an upset.

New Zealand, however, have never lost at this particular arena, and they have not been beaten by Wales since 1953.

The Grand Slam champions are enduring what they themselves have dubbed a blip, what others fear is a rut that may prove difficult to break.

Hansen remembers vividly the lows he had to withstand with Wales, and insists the current crop are nowhere near plummeting to those depths yet.

"I don't think I have been in the same situation as they have been in — other than losing the games," he said at yesterday's team announcement.

"It was a totally different era. This side has won three Grand Slams and they are a very good side. When I was there, we were trying to rebuild.

"Self-belief is a big thing in any sport and this group, although they appear at the moment they don't have any, they have some history that allows them to get back quite quickly.

"I know they'll be just mentally getting ready and getting excited about this game.

"Every team that plays the All Blacks seems to find another gear anyway so we don't want them finding too many.

"Our job is to go out and stamp our mark on the game, do our best to put them under pressure."

Having named a side for tomorrow's encounter which boasts a staggering 745 caps, New Zealand will certainly have enough experience to dismantle Wales.

To put that into context, Wales's reasonably seasoned line-up amounts to 504 caps, while England's team to face South Africa this weekend consists of just 233 Test appearances.

Asked how this current All Blacks outfit compares with other great New Zealand sides, Hansen was reasonably coy.

"They're a good side, no doubt about that," he said. "How good they are is up for other people to talk about really.

"We have got some talented athletes but that's not enough. You have got to prepare well physically and mentally to get things right during the week and express that talent.

"But there's plenty of talent, no doubt about that."

Hansen has hordes of gifted players at his disposal in New Zealand, a far cry from the limited resources with which he had to work in Wales.

Yet, despite his Welsh side's shortcomings and the criticisms he faced as a result, the burly Kiwi still reflects warmly on his time in the northern hemisphere.

"For me it was a great time. It was a hard time, a tough time because we instigated a lot of change while I was here," he said.

"We weren't that successful on the scoreboard for a long time but, as I said at the time, reality is reality and it is what it is. We had to keep working hard in trying to get to a point where we could compete.

"We did that in the end and I think we left it better than we found it. But, in doing that, I think there were a lot of things I learnt about myself and about coaching.

"You have got to keep your sense of humour. You learn a lot about people when you are really under the cosh and this game is about people, it's about managing people."

Wales are undoubtedly under the cosh at the moment, and tomorrow's match will reveal much about their resolve and character.

Hansen, for one, has certainly benefited from the pressurised environment of Welsh rugby.

"I'm proud of everything I have done in coaching," he said. "I don't necessarily think I have done any better than anybody else but I'm just happy.

"What I love about coaching is seeing someone have a dream and being able to achieve that dream and being part of something that is good.

"That was probably the tightest team I have ever been associated with, the culture within the group was good at the end. We played some reasonable rugby in the end.

"We restructured the rugby. I'm not sure where it's going with that at the moment.

"It sounds like they are still trying to work out whether they are going to be centrally contracted, privately-owned or how many teams they have got but that process started during that time.

"So a lot of good things have happened. Am I proud of it? Yeah, I'm pretty proud of what we did during that time."

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