Build­ing on long leg­end

Herald on Sunday - - SPORT - By Gre­gor Paul

If ever there was a week to get caught up feel­ing nos­tal­gic, this was it. All the footage and pic­tures be­ing shown in trib­ute to Sir Colin Meads and the re-telling of great sto­ries that de­fined the great man, sent many an older mind drift­ing fondly back to the past.

One of those who couldn’t re­sist a good look back was All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Born in the late 1950s, he was pushed to­wards rugby by a fam­ily, es­pe­cially his fa­ther, that was in­grained in it and then pulled by the great All Blacks team of the mid-to­late 1960s.

Hansen’s up­bring­ing would pre­sum­ably be typ­i­cal of more than half his peers at the time — he was on a dairy farm out­side Mos­giel, with not much more than a rugby ball and his imag­i­na­tion to fill his spare time.

Such an ex­is­tence may sound lonely or bereft of dis­trac­tion to the mod­ern gen­er­a­tion but for Hansen — and no doubt most of his peers — knowl­edge of the myths and leg­ends of the All Blacks were all a young lad needed to keep him on the straight and nar­row.

Count­less hours were spent play­ing out the great­est games no one ever saw. But who needed any­thing else? The pass­ing of Meads has cre­ated a yearn­ing for a time when life was para­dox­i­cally more ba­sic yet more ful­fill­ing.

“You did grav­i­tate to­wards rugby,” says Hansen. “There wasn’t a lot of other choices but I think nat­u­rally I would have any­way be­cause our fam­ily had a big in­volve­ment in rugby.

“My fa­ther was a good rugby player in his time and an even bet­ter coach who was well be­fore his time in the way he thought about it. I was the old­est son and we lived on a dairy farm, so were kind of iso­lated. We didn’t have the in­ter­net back in those days so you spent a lot of time talk­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing and dad would tell sto­ries and you were hun­gry to watch it on the TV.

“You would get up and lis­ten to test matches in South Africa on the ra­dio and those things in­spired you be­cause you wanted to be like them. You wanted to be an All Black.

“I was never good enough but it is what got me into the game. It is such an im­por­tant part of the New Zealand psy­che and it was the one thing back in the early days that we were re­ally good at and some­thing with which we could get some pride and be­lief as a na­tion.

“I used to play all the time on my own in the back­yard with a rugby ball and be­cause you were iso­lated, you had to make up names when you were Colin Meads.

“You were Brian Lo­chore, you were Tony Steel, you were Sid Go­ing. That’s how life was back then, you played and you had fun.”

Half of what Hansen thought he knew about Meads and other All Blacks of that era wouldn’t have been true.

At a time when news trav­elled at a speed that would seem glacial to­day, it tended to pick up em­bel­lish­ments along the way.

But that is the magic of oral his­to­ries, they ex­ert power and in­flu­ence beyond their means and the All Blacks of to­day should be aware that so much of the stand­ing they en­joy now was built on the deeds — true and ex­ag­ger­ated — of those men who played in the mostly TV-free age.

Hansen needs lit­tle re­mind­ing of that. Since he took the head coach­ing job in 2012, he’s made it a pri­or­ity for his play­ers to de­velop a bet­ter knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of the All Blacks’ his­tory.

“We are very con­nected to our past. One of the things that we have tried quite hard to do is un­der­stand our iden­tity and that is just a fancy way of say­ing our his­tory.

“We talk a lot about en­hanc­ing our legacy so you don’t own the jer­sey, you just pass through it. The jer­sey can’t stand up on its own, so when you are wear­ing it, it is your time to tell a story.

“We have had so many great rugby play­ers in the past who have told great sto­ries to the point where the All Blacks are revered through­out the world for how they play rugby. Be­ing aware of that is im­por­tant be­cause if you are go­ing to en­hance some­thing, you need to know the his­tory of it.

“It is with us all the time — it is part of our team room and it is part of our con­ver­sa­tions from time to time as in­di­vid­u­als and as a group.”

That his­tory is also with the cur­rent side in the way they play, or cer­tainly the ethos of how they are try­ing to play has a strong link back to the 1960s.

Hav­ing been so en­tranced by that great pe­riod, it is no sur­prise that Hansen has tried to cast his team in the mould of the one that so in­spired him 50 years ago.

It was the ath­leti­cism and skill level of the likes of Meads, Lo­chore and Wil­son Whin­eray that con­nected so deeply with Hansen.

And while it has maybe not been overtly de­lib­er­ate or al­ways con­scious, he says that there has been, prob­a­bly, some­where in his mind a de­sire to cre­ate a for­ward pack that could pass and run.

“For me, when I first started get­ting in­volved in rugby, it was in the black and white TV days and there weren’t as many tests as there are now and the names in the ’60s were such big names and such great play­ers,” says Hansen.

“Es­pe­cially that 1967 side that went through un­beaten. Sir Brian Lo­chore was a player who I ad­mired a lot. Sir Wil­son Whin­eray, a prop who could run like a back, Ken Gray and Jazz Muller — there were great sto­ries about that team that cap­tured your imag­i­na­tion not only about the team, but about how they played.

“Our backs have al­ways been seen to be skil­ful and to play with guile but that for­ward pack, re­gard­less of who they picked through that time, was al­ways play­ing like backs and it was not some­thing that was nat­u­ral back then,” said Hansen.

“I’ve al­ways thought it was some­thing that if we have done it be­fore, why can’t we do it again? And in my coach­ing, it has al­ways in­spired me to have for­wards in the team who can run with the ball and catch and pass, and it prob­a­bly ex­tends from watch­ing those guys.”

There would be lit­tle doubt Hansen has achieved his goal of cre­at­ing mul­ti­skilled for­wards and the com­par­isons that can be made be­tween the team now and the team of the 1960s are many. Kieran Read is, say those who are old enough to know, a mod­ern in­car­na­tion of Lo­chore. There are sim­i­lar­i­ties in the way they see the game, in the way they use the ball and make No 8 such a vi­tal con­trib­u­tor in both at­tack and de­fence.

Joe Moody is de­vel­op­ing into a prop of sim­i­lar ilk to Whin­eray. The for­mer is rugged, not in any way a nat­u­ral-look­ing ath­lete as such, but he finds a way to get around the field with ex­cep­tional dex­ter­ity and has shown sev­eral times that he can pass and catch. But it is re­ally the two locks whose con­nec­tion to the past would be most ob­vi­ous. Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock have strong strains of Meads run­ning through them. They have the same tough­ness, that same de­sire to im­pose them­selves phys­i­cally. They also, es­pe­cially Re­tal­lick, have that same abil­ity to play with the ball, to carry it hard and ef­fec­tively in well-po­liced ar­eas and yet still make good gains. Just as play­ers 50 years ago lit­tle rel­ished hav­ing to throw them­selves in front of Meads, no one in test foot­ball to­day can say they en­joy tan­gling with Re­tal­lick, who is all el­bows and knees.

“They were tough men and they came from hard-work­ing back­grounds,” say Hansen of Meads, his brother Stan and other locks of that era.

“They were hun­gry to play for New Zealand be­cause there weren’t that many test matches and they had lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties. That cre­ated a nat­u­ral hunger, a nat­u­ral de­sire to be good and they were the fore­run­ners I guess to what we see to­day but they cre­ated their own legacy. “When you see to­day’s play­ers and you think about Colin as an ex­am­ple, he played with such in­tent and pas­sion you can imag­ine him — we talk about hard ball gets — he would get the hard ball gets be­cause that was just in­side him to do that and put his body on the line.

“He would have adapted and changed how he played but he still would have been a tremen­dous player in to­day’s era along with a lot of those peo­ple from that time. “He ran with the ball and we see Sam and Brodie as both be­ing guys who can run and pass, and they are both phys­i­cal men within the laws of the game, as Sir Colin was back then. “I think both those men have been in­spired by the likes of Pine­tree and Stan, Pole Whit­ing and Andy Haden and var­i­ous other peo­ple how have played in their po­si­tion.”

One of the things that we have tried quite hard to do is un­der­stand our iden­tity and that is just a fancy way of say­ing our his­tory.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen

Brett Phibbs

Steve Hansen grew up on a farm in awe of great All Blacks and their deeds.

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