All Blacks and England to wear poppies in ‘special’ match

Their all black jerseys are recognizable the world over, but playing with a red poppy on the sleeve to honor those killed in war will be “a special occasion,” according to New Zealand rugby coach Steve Hansen.

The All Blacks and opponents England will both sport the iconic emblem of remembrance when they clash at Twickenham, London Saturday, a day before the centenary of Armistice Day signaling the end of World War I.

The wearing of poppies to commemorate the fallen has raised emotions in recent times, with Manchester United footballer Nemanja Matic refusing to wear one on his shirt last weekend because it reminded him of his childhood when the former Yugoslavia was bombed in a NATO-air campaign that lasted 78 days in 1999.

But Hansen says the famous All Blacks will be wearing their poppies with pride.

“Any time you put the poppy on is a pretty special occasion marking one of the disastrous occasions, World War I and what happened then,” he told reporters in the New Zealand team’s hotel on the banks of London’s River Thames Thursday.

“So many people from so many countries lost their lives and it changed families for ever, but they lost them trying to do what was right for their country and there were a lot of New Zealanders involved.

“Thirteen All Blacks from the original team died in World War 1, and the first ever captain was one of them.”

There were also 27 Englishmen among the 131 international rugby players to have died in the war, and soil from the grave of former captain Ronnie Poulton in Belgium was buried at Twickenham in May.

The two sides have not met since New Zealand edged a close encounter 24-21 at Twickenham in 2014, but the world champion will take on a resurgent England side fresh off victory against South Africa last weekend.

They will be playing for the Hillary Shield, named after Kiwi great Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Sherpa Tenzing, was the first person to climb Mt. Everest in 1953.

The name of Hillary, who died in 2008, has extra resonance for the All Blacks.

“Ed Hillary was one of the great men of New Zealand,” added Hansen. “He and Tenzing climbed that mountain for the first time, when New Zealand was unheralded, a place of farmers and colonials, so to speak.

“We were good at rugby and not getting a lot of credit for a lot of other stuff and he helped put New Zealand on the map.

“He did a tremendous amount of work in the Himalayas for people who were poorer off than maybe others were, so he’s a tremendous man and it’s a really great trophy to be playing for.”

If Hillary put New Zealand on the map, the all-conquering All Blacks have made it the center of the universe when it comes to rugby.

New Zealand has won the last two World Cups, has been the world’s top-ranked side since 2009, and has won 23 of its last 27 Tests.

Its only loss this year came in a 36-34 defeat against South Africa in Wellington, New Zealand in September, but as one of sport’s most dominant winning machines, Hansen says the All Blacks are used to dealing with the expectation of a rugby-mad nation.

“The one constant thing about being in the All Blacks is you’re under pressure constantly,” said Hansen.

“You’re expected to win every Test match and not only win it but win it really well.

“Once you come to realize that life becomes a little easier. [The pressure] is there, it’s not going to go away. And it does, a lot of times, give you an advantage because when other teams get put under pressure they haven’t experienced as much as maybe we have.”

‘Overwhelming place’

The All Blacks as a unit talk about the expectations on them, and Hansen and his staff encourage the players to “walk towards the pressure.”

“It’s been there since day one for me,” said flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who will be winning his 71st cap against England. “We’re used to it, we’re expected to win every time we go out there, but we embrace it as a team and walk towards it as a team.”

Winger Rieko Ioane, 21, added: “The pressure we put on each other is probably bigger than what everyone perceives we get on the outside.

“That’s probably what makes it easier to cope with. The management are real harsh on the boys and the boys are harsh on each other so it makes it a healthy competitive environment.”

Hansen said players new to the set-up “feel it straight away” and admitted the All Blacks world can be an “overwhelming place.”

“In any educational process you’ve got to talk about it, and you’ve got to get people to understand why and the reasonings behind that, and then it’s about supporting them when they’re going through it and keeping an eye on them and doing what the individual needs as opposed to having one lump answer, ‘This is how we deal with pressure,’ because we all handle it differently,” he said.

“Once you’ve acknowledged it’s there you can deal with it.”

Natural athletes

However, Saturday’s clash has a bigger “buzz” than even when New Zealand hosted the British and Irish Lions in 2017, says Hansen.

“We understand who we are and our history, but you’ve got to be reasonably stupid if you can’t work out this is going to be big,” he adds.

“There will be 80,000 people, it’ s all over the papers, you can’t get a ticket — you must have been on holiday if you can’t work out it’s going to be big.

“The buzz is bigger, that Lions tour has made it bigger. Drawing the series for us wasn’t successful so it’s made this week have a sharper edge to it.”

New Zealand has won three matches since that South Africa defeat, while England’s win against the Springboks has given Eddie Jones’ side renewed belief after losing six games in a row in 2018.

Hansen, however, knows his team will have to adapt to a different style from England, who traditionally play a tighter, more forward-orientated game

“We’ve got natural athletes who want to run and carry the ball and pass the ball and have terrific instincts and want to play what’s in front of them,” he said.

“They’ll play a physical game up front, their kicking game is pretty good, their aerial skills to support that are pretty good.

“They’ll look to wear you down. They won’t go away so if you don’t take your opportunities that come when you’ve got momentum it’s going to be a dogfight.

“That’s Test footy, you’ve got to make the most of the moments you get given.”

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