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