Steve Hansen says 'hunted' Ireland are feeling pressure of being 'top dog'
Last Updated: 06/03/19 7:42am
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen believes "hunted" Ireland are struggling to cope with the pressure of being the "top dog" of world rugby during their Six Nations campaign.
Ireland enjoyed a brilliant 2018 season, which saw them win the Grand Slam last year and earn a memorable victory against back-to-back World Cup champions New Zealand in November.
But Joe Schmidt's side lost 32-20 to England in their Six Nations title defence opener, before responding with victories against Scotland and Italy on the road without hitting their best form.
Hansen hailed Ireland as the best team in the world following their first home victory against the All Blacks during the autumn internationals, but he believes expectations are weighing heavy before the World Cup in Japan later this year.
"I said it at the time when we played Ireland that whoever won that game was going to be viewed as the number one team in the world and everyone is going to chase them," Hansen said.
"For us that's something we've been used to. We've been ranked the No 1 team for 112 months now, I think, but people have seen Ireland as the top dog after they beat us, and that put a massive amount of expectation on the players and coaches.
"Instead of being the hunters they are the hunted and it's different. It's different when you're sitting at the top of the tree. It's a different experience. Not many teams cope with it that well."
Ireland are third on the Six Nations table - behind leaders Wales (12) and England (10) - but they can maintain their ambitions of a successful title defence alive with victory over France in Dublin on Sunday.
Hansen is impressed with the standard of the rugby in the Six Nations and said all six northern hemisphere teams had improved ahead of the World Cup, which starts in September.
"They're all capable of knocking off a big team," he said. "There's been some brutal Tests."