NZ Rugby World
Steven Hansen - Legacy. Gregor Paul’s written about what made Hansen such a great All Blacks coach.
IN AN EXTRACT FROM HIS BOOK ON THE FORMER ALL BLACKS COACH, GREGOR PAUL LOOKS BACK AT 2016, THE YEAR STEVE HANSEN ENSURED THE ALL BLACKS COPED WITHOUT SOME OF THE GAME’S GREATEST.
When Steve Hansen was first appointed in 2012, he knew the balance of media and public opinion sat against him succeeding. His previous record as a head coach – specifically his tenure at Wales – didn’t provide much of a basis for anyone to predict that great things would be coming. He was also conscious that his fall from grace in 2009, when he started an unwinnable war with the New Zealand media, had opened him up to be perceived as this sullen brick of a man whose only coaching tools were a fearsome scowl and harsh words delivered in a deadpan tone. He didn’t particularly love being portrayed or written about in such an unflattering light, but he knew it also gave him a hidden power. He was easy to underestimate and he liked that. He was a natural competitor, a fight-tothe-death sort of bloke who relished being pegged as something he wasn’t as it was powerful motivation to prove everyone wrong. His lack of academic achievement meant that he’d walked out of the school gates on his last day with few teachers expecting he’d do much with his life. They had no idea the size of the fire they had lit inside him. Being the underdog sat well with Hansen. He was of a contrarian disposition: happy to debate and argue the toss about most things, often saying black simply because someone else had said white. He once asked a reporter who their favourite band was and when they said Coldplay, he told them they were wrong, it was the Eagles. There was an instinctive need for conflict inside him and he lived off it, picking little battles every day. When the All Blacks played in Tokyo against Japan in 2013, they were told there would be no police escort taking them to the stadium on matchday. The Japanese didn’t do police escorts for anyone other than the Emperor and select foreign dignitaries such as US presidents, yet Hansen agitated team manager Darren Shand to fight and see if he could force them to change their minds. Some of that fighting spirit had been instilled by Des, who had encouraged Hansen to think more deeply about the game and always ask why. It wasn’t in Hansen’s DNA to simply accept something first up. He had to challenge it, think it through and ask why, why, why all the time. By February 2016, having coached the All Blacks to 49 test wins and a World Cup victory, Hansen had surely lost the element of surprise. Presumably no one was still underestimating him after such an impressive four years. He’d proven wrong all those who had doubted him – cutting off that external conflict of feeling that the world didn’t respect his ability. If anything, however, Hansen came into the 2016 season with a heightened desire to prove himself.
He’d coached the All Blacks to a World Cup triumph, but he also sensed that many of his international coaching peers still didn’t rate him. He felt there was a view held within the international coaching fraternity that anyone – Steve Hansen or Mickey Mouse – could have coached that particular All Blacks team to so many victories. There were plenty who looked at the All Blacks, saw McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith, Mealamu, Woodcock, Read and Kaino – players all discovered and developed long before Hansen took over – and said they were the reason the All Blacks had won 91 per cent of their tests since 2012.
It might have been baseless paranoia – a symptom of his days in the police – that Hansen thought this, but as part of his job, he had to attend various World Rugby get-togethers, and it was at these sporadic gatherings that he sensed the mood and tried to determine what others were thinking. By early 2016 he had deduced that many leading nations believed the All Blacks were vulnerable, having lost their Golden Generation. In particular, he felt Australia and South Africa were looking at the All Blacks as being ripe for the picking, having farewelled 800-plus test caps and the titanic contributions of McCaw and Carter. To believe the All Blacks were now vulnerable implied that Hansen didn’t have the skills or ability to redefine the team and rebuild it. Hansen convinced himself that his international peers thought he’d be exposed in 2016 as a coach who had simply got lucky in 2012 because there were so many good players there when he arrived. Unbelievably almost, Hansen had put the World Cup back into the NZR trophy cabinet and yet he still managed to find a source of external conflict. He was once again walking out the school gates with no one believing in him and he came back to work in 2016 with an even greater desire to prove himself. He rightly sensed that many of the emerging players had been waiting for
this moment. The likes of Cruden and Barrett had patiently waited for their chance behind Carter. Cane had won 31 caps but most of them were off the bench. He was going to inherit the No 7 jersey from the greatest player to ever wear it, but far from being intimidated by that prospect, Cane was eager to take it on. Williams, once he returned from Sevens duty in August, was hungry to become a starting player, having been used off the bench to bolster the Nonu–Smith partnership, and had told Hansen he wanted to get to 50 test caps. Whitelock harboured ambitions to one day be the captain and Ben Smith had gone from being a bench utility to the best fullback in the world and the co-captain of a resurgent Highlanders team which had won Super Rugby in 2015. There were special players in the new All Blacks leadership group – and it was up to them, thundered Hansen, to prove that to the rest of the world. They had been part of something special between 2012 and 2015 but that success belonged to McCaw and his generation. That was their moment, their story. This new group, proud as they had been to play a part in it, now had to want to write their own chapter. They wanted a legacy that was theirs and Hansen nurtured that hunger and desire. He fostered in them a belligerence. He stoked them up by telling them they could be better than the men they were replacing while hinting that no one outside of the room believed they could be. Hansen put a chip on the shoulder of his new leaders – or at least put plenty of salt on the one that was already there. ‘At that point in time, especially from the outside looking in, there was probably a perception of what are the All Blacks going to be like now?,’ said Retallick. ‘They are losing so much experience. I guess there was a massive drive from the players as well as with Steve and the coaches that it was our time to carry on and build on what they had done. And I suppose we were thinking that they had set the way but that we were just as good to keep carrying on and push on to start the four-year cycle. It was motivating and inspiring. I don’t know if everyone would admit it but if someone tries to criticise you and say that it won’t be the same, you want to prove them wrong. I think that is the personality of most rugby players and it was inspiring. But I guess it was also important that we had a slight chip on the shoulder and wanted to go out and prove we were just as good even though we had lost those players.’ The goal set in 2012 was to become the most dominant team in the history of rugby, but by 2016 that had evolved – not just because it had already been achieved, but because Hansen knew the group needed to be chasing something that was undeniably their goal and not that of their predecessors. It was also important to keep pushing the ambition that little bit higher – to keep everyone stretched and uncomfortable – and so the All Blacks of 2016 were attempting to become the most dominant sports team in history. They were now looking beyond rugby for their benchmark. They were ready to be compared with the likes of the Spanish football team and the Chicago Bulls. They had a higher, higher purpose, and by the time the first All Blacks squad of 2016 gathered to play a three-test series against Wales, they discovered that victory had not softened anything within Hansen. He was burning with the desire in June 2016 to see his World Cup–winning All Blacks get better, just as he had in June 2012. Ahead of that first series in 2016, the All Blacks trained with the same intensity. They prepared with the same depth and Hansen was going to review their performances with the same scrutiny and ferocity. There was no let up. That relentless need to poke about in the psyche of his players and kick up feelings within them was still as prominent as it had ever been.
“The one thing we wouldn’t allow ourselves or anyone else to say in 2016 was that we were rebuilding,” said Hansen. “I know every other team in the world thought that we would have to go through a rebuilding stage because of the players we had lost. Our attitude was that we were reestablishing ourselves which is a different mentality. And we talked about going out in 2016 and showing the world that we could still be a team that could dominate even without those special players. And imagine what that would do to people’s head space if they thought, shit they have lost McCaw, DC, Conrad, Ma’a, Kevvie and Woody and now we have got a chance to beat them. If we had gone soft mentally and said you know, let’s spend a couple of years rebuilding ourselves, we probably would have. The challenge was put out: we are going to go out and re-establish our dominance without those guys. “And we had prepared for them to go. It wasn’t as if we were putting in greenhorns. We had Beauden Barrett coming into first five. Yes, he’d played at fullback a lot but he was established. We had Sam Cane who by that stage had played about 30 tests, I think. He wasn’t green coming in at No 7 and we had a captain in Kieran who had captained the team nine times by then. It was going to be new that he was doing it full-time, but it wasn’t new to him. The aspiration of being dominant was able to help us.” The All Blacks had made the summit in 2015, but it turned out that they hadn’t actually conquered Everest. They had been climbing on K2 without the players ever realising.
Edited extract from Steve Hansen: The Legacy by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins, $49.99)