New Zealand v Australia, Tri-Nations, September 19
Hansen goes on the front foot
September 16, 2009
All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly claims a lineout ball during training, New Zealand training session, Rugby League Park, Wellington, New Zealand, September 16, 2009
All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly claims a lineout ball during a training session in Wellington © Getty Images

All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen has launched a steely defence of New Zealand's faltering lineout ahead of their Tri-Nations finale against Australia this weekend.

The All Blacks' first-half lineout debacle at Hamilton last Saturday set the stage for South Africa's 32-29 win to secure the Tri-Nations. It has prompted further criticism from all quarters with Hansen himself accused of technical shortcomings.

In response, Hansen rehashed a famous line he attributed to former National Football League coach and quotes machine Vince Lombardi.

"They haven't built any statues for critics or wannabes yet," he said. "My job is not about listening to those people. My job is about making sure that we stay on task and make sure we do the job we've got to do and do it well. There's no point me getting concerned about what people are saying."

Hansen then harked back to his days in the police force in an attempt to put the hysteria into perspective, pointing out that rugby is far removed from the harsh reality of the world.

"This is not pressure, pressure is when you knock on someone's door and say `sorry, your son's just died' or `sorry, I've got to take your baby who has died in a cot death away'. That's pressure," he said. "This is a game. We're passionate about it and we want to win but mistakes happen in sport.

"Otherwise (Roger) Federer would win every (tennis) Grand Slam and Serena (Williams) wouldn't carry on like she did. People are human and if you're playing with humans then you're going to get mistakes and you have to live with that."

It is hoped that Otago lock Tom Donnelly can help rectify the team's problems after he was drafted into the All Blacks' line-up as one of five personnel changes and two positional switches.

The 27-year-old's promotion is seen as due reward for several seasons of Trojan service for Otago and the Highlanders. His heads-down bums-up efforts were recognised this year and last by places in wider All Blacks' squads but it hasn't quite been enough to leap on to the big stage.

His replacement of Isaac Ross in the middle of the lineout comes at a time when the forwards are under intense heat for that element of their game. But that doesn't seem to bother the hardy southerner.

"It's a part of the game that I really enjoy and thrive on," he said of the lineout. "It's a great opportunity for me to show what I can do and see if I can help out at all."

One man who knows exactly what Donnelly can do is Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, who plotted against him for several seasons in southern Super 14 derbies as coach of the Crusaders. He had no doubt the 2m, 113kg hard man was ready for the step up.

"Tom is a good footballer, he has been playing Super rugby for a long time," Deans said today. "The one thing that you find with blokes on their debuts they play out of their skins. That's what we expect from him."

Born in Rotorua, Donnelly headed south in 2000 and one of his first games was a trial game where a team-mate at hooker was Andrew Hore, the man he must establish a quick rapport with this week. His debut for Otago in 2002 was followed by a Highlanders call-up two years later, with forwards coach Steve Hansen impressed by his consistency at the coalface, including excellent showings for this year's Junior All Blacks.

"Tom's been in the Junior All Blacks over the last 3-4 years and he's just been knocking on the door all the time," Hansen said. "His aerial skills are good and his scrum as well. They're things we're looking for, obviously, and he gets round the park. If you're going to replace someone like Isaac, you need your aerial skills and you probably get the physical stuff (with Donnelly) a little bit better than Isaac does at the moment."

Donnelly only heard the good news this morning while Hansen was going through lineout moves, "so I thought I'd better start listening".

"I got a couple of runs in the pack yesterday (at training) but that didn't really have any other clue. I thought I might be a shot of making the bench but I didn't think I'd be starting."

He had begun to wonder if an All Blacks jersey was slipping from his grasp, particularly when Ross leap-frogged a host of contenders at the start of this year to replace the injured Ali Williams.

"I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to head overseas but I decided to stay in New Zealand and chase the All Black jersey," Donnelly said. "At the start of the year I stopped worrying about it so much and just played footy. I played a little better for that. I just take each day as it comes now, I don't really think too far ahead."

Oldest All Blacks debutants in the professional era (since 1996):
Dave Hewett - 30 years 126 days (2001)
Joe McDonnell - 29 years 99 days (2002)
Ross Filipo - 28 years 63 days (2007)
Tom Donnelly - 27 years 353 days (2009)
Greg Rawlinson - 27 years 300 days (2006)


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