Steve Hansen back, but must prove himself 'all over again'

Steve Hansen [L] congratulates Beauden Barrett after New Zealand's win in Bledisloe II, August 17, 2019 Hannah Peters/Getty Images

New Zealand's first Rugby World Cup-winning captain wants Steve Hansen to keep making the big selection calls as he attempts to "prove himself all over again" on the game's biggest stage.

David Kirk was New Zealand's sole triumphant World Cup captain for 24 years until Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy into the Auckland air in 2011. And while he now resides on the other side of the Tasman, Kirk maintains a keen eye on the All Blacks.

And he was happy to see Hansen cut big-name veterans Ben Smith and Owen Franks, as well as the unusually-quiet Rieko Ioane, for Bledisloe II where the All Blacks responded to a 21-point loss in Perth with a 36-0 thrashing of the Wallabies.

"I thought after that first Bledisloe Cup Test, when some older players played really poorly, that the team seemed not to be focused and not desperate to win, that he [Hansen] was off the boil, off his game," Kirk told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "But he made some important selection changes and I think that game will go down as an important one for the All Blacks in understanding that they do need to go into the World Cup with a younger, more athletic [squad] with more to prove.

"He made those changes for the second Bledisloe Cup and they came off and the All Blacks played really well, but World Cups are about consistency and about learning and improving with every match. He's a very experienced coach but he has to prove himself at this World Cup all over again."

New Zealand's Eden Park triumph, which earned them the Bledisloe Cup for a 17th straight year, also heralded the first game when the hotly-debated Richie Mo'unga-Beauden Barrett dual playmaker combination really started to hit its straps.

A brilliant pick-up from Mo'unga saw the No. 10 streak away for a try that broke the game open late in the first half, a play Barrett then backed up with a surging counterattack that put George Bridge through a hole and onto a run that would yield a try for Aaron Smith.

Kirk is right behind the approach, believing it will pay dividends at the World Cup not so much through the breakout plays of the weekend, but more-so when the All Blacks have to pick apart teams and play a little more strategically in Japan.

"Totally a fan of that, I always thought it was the right thing to do," Kirk said. "I always thought that Beauden was a fantastic athlete and rugby player, very dangerous on attack and courageous on defence and had lots of great things I love about him.

"But he had two small weaknesses, relative weaknesses in the scheme of things; he was not quite consistent enough as a goal-kicker at the very top level, if you want to win World Cups. And secondly, almost because of his creativity and his athleticism and his ability to do things, he was always in the moment thinking about what to do as a No. 10 rather than stepping back and behaving much more like a general.

"I think Richie Mo'unga is stronger in both of those two points, and Beauden will be a wonderful fullback."

Having proved hit-and-miss in a 16-all draw with the Springboks and then the heavy loss to the Wallabies in Perth, Kirk said the Mo'unga-Barrett combination was at last given an opportunity to play on the front foot in Auckland.

"I think it took them a few of games just to settle down and give their forwards a kick up the backside, so they could perform and make it easier for the backs, which is what we need in the backs, but that happened certainly in the second Bledisloe and we saw how potent those two players could be in those positions."

Kirk will be there in Japan for the tournament's deciding matches, but he isn't sure who will be joining him and the other six other World Cup winning captains come Nov. 2.

"I think there [are] four or five teams that could win it and I think that it's going to come down to one or two moments in one or two games, and it's going to be exciting."