Friday 18 October 2019

Zen master primed for last stand

All Blacks' two-time World Cup-winning coach bids to go out on the high of a scarcely believable hat-trick

Steve Hansen’s hugely successful tenure as New Zealand coach will end after the World Cup in Japan. Photo: Hannah Peters
Steve Hansen’s hugely successful tenure as New Zealand coach will end after the World Cup in Japan. Photo: Hannah Peters

Liam Napier

Of all the qualities the All Blacks will miss when Steve Hansen's eight-year tenure, and one of the great world rugby eras, comes to a close at the World Cup, his ability to turn Zen-like master is possibly least appreciated. Describe Hansen in one word and it must be "composed". It was not always this way. Quite the opposite, in fact.

These days, as his last stand approaches in Japan, Hansen is almost unflappable, having near-defined the art of calming influence. Such a feat is no easy task while guiding the world's most demanding, glory-hungry, panicked rugby nation.

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Three weeks ago in Perth, two games out from their World Cup opener, the All Blacks conceded the most points in their history in the record 47-26 defeat to the Wallabies, a team with little prior form. Never mind the circumstances of New Zealand playing the second half with 14 men after Scott Barrett's red card, the loss sent tremors through New Zealand as if Mount Ruapehu was erupting again.

Allow these impassioned kneejerk reactions to infiltrate the team, and the collapse of the three-time world champions would be a weekly occurrence. Hansen instead fronted up with his typical 'we've got this' attitude and the All Blacks righted their wrong the following week with an order-restoring 36-0 demolition of Australia at Eden Park. World Cup fears allayed, for the moment at least.

Hansen does not get it right every time, but more often than not he has come to represent a mood-soothing presence.

Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks and Northampton coach and a long-time confidant whose rugby relationship with Hansen dates back to the early 1980s in Canterbury, recognises this serenity. "He's been a steady hand on the ship, so when things like Perth have occurred he's stopped any form of panic going through," Smith, dubbed the Professor for his deep-rooted knowledge of the game, says.

"One of his greatest attributes has been to calm the public down; to say: 'Yeah we weren't that good, we understand that, but we're going to be way better next week.' You need to understand how the All Blacks work and how their minds work. There's so much pride and love for the jersey in that group that they're always going to bounce back from a poor result. He emits that attitude in everything he says and does, so he takes a lot of stress away for people."

Hansen's win ratio as head coach since 2012 sits at near 89 per cent - nine losses in 100 Tests - safely placing him among the pantheon of elite sporting, not merely rugby, mentors. Four years ago he made history by steering the All Blacks to their first retention of the World Cup with victory over Australia in the final at Twickenham. Now he seeks a third successive crown in Japan.

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Though the end is nigh, Hansen is reticent to make his final campaign anything like the last gunfight at the OK Corral. Talk of past deeds distracts from present quests, and so any such murmurings are deemed unhelpful to the team-first, task-focused mantra the All Blacks strive to live every day.

Hansen's shadow, though, cannot be dismissed. To appreciate his coaching evolution we must track back 15 years to his time as All Blacks assistant coach alongside Smith and the then-head coach Graham Henry. That trio eventually secured reappointment against all odds despite the disastrous 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Cardiff, to push through and deliver New Zealand's first Webb Ellis Cup for 24 years.

Much controversy and angst, however, was endured in between. Three grand slam triumphs (2005, 2008, 2010) and the comprehensive sweep of the British & Irish Lions typified dominance that also included Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup conquests. Yet the crowded trophy cabinet did little to alter ingrained World Cup resentment.

As Smith explains, only victory over Marc Lièvremont's erratic French at Eden Park brought the trio any form of real recognition. "Because we hadn't won a World Cup we were still seen, not as failures, but there was a lot of negativity around us.

"At the end of that World Cup in 2011 we'd won 89 games from 103 but it was only really that last game - even though it was an 8-7 win - that validated what we were doing publicly. It's easy to look back now and say: 'Jeez, it's been a good era and it's still going,' but it was built on the back of some pretty tough times."

During this period, before his promotion to head coach, Hansen overhauled his persona and the confrontational demeanour that too often put him at odds with the media and public. Only after a concerted effort to transform elements of his gruff exterior into the unflustered dry humour and quick wit now regularly witnessed, did he evolve into the coach we can see today.

"I admired his growth in that time," Smith says. "Initially his public profile was quite poor. Through that time he came to recognise a couple of weaknesses he had and set about making them strengths, and I think that says a lot about him. He realised he wasn't complete.

"Every year he got slightly better and that's what you call a growth mindset. He could have stayed how he was and done reasonably well but never reached the heights he's reached. He's worked on himself more than anyone I know. He's really searched to improve."

The Hansen you get in public now is largely the one you get behind the scenes too. He is tough, opinionated, never afraid to say what he thinks, but also empathetic. Assistant coaches and senior players wanting to alter his view must be prepared to battle for it by presenting convincing, compelling cases.

Through the seasons Hansen has softened, somewhat, with more room for negotiation and discussion than when he first assumed the reins and used his inside knowledge and experience to drive firm ideas about what he felt needed to change. No-one survives by being solely strong-minded. Hansen has gained respect because those around him know intent comes from the right place.

In this regard he cares deeply for the All Blacks jersey, its legacy and the players, to the point that he often refers to the team as a family. In navigating international rugby, particularly in the southern hemisphere landscape which requires relentless travel, the All Blacks spend half the year together, riding peaks and the odd trough.

Hansen has strived to foster environments where spats are fought but the team remains tight. Where it is OK to make mistakes, so long as you learn from them. Verbal smacks are handed out but they are for the sole purpose of improvement.

Leading nations never stop chasing, which has forced Hansen to adapt and adjust. Not just to rush defences, either. As new players emerge, the age gap grows, and Hansen has needed to change the way he communicates, teaches and learns. This creates both comfortable and uncomfortable moments. In his time, Hansen has seen it all. In his final days as New Zealand coach, in what is likely to be the most open World Cup to date, his calming presence will be needed more than ever.

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