On Wednesday, Steve Hansen will name his 31-player squad to contest the World Cup in Japan. It will be a talented group who will be favourites to win the tournament for the third time in a row and if they are successful a big reason why will be due to Hansen and his coaching group.
It takes a bit to fluster the All Blacks head coach, a man who replied “just my arm” when asked during the 2015 World Cup whether he had anything more up his sleeve.
But in the immediate aftermath of the occasion of his 100th test recently, Hansen appeared visibly emotional for a moment when asked whether or not the 36-0 victory in the Eden Park Bledisloe Cup decider made his milestone more special.
“Look,” he told Sky Sports interviewer Ian Smith, “I’m immensely proud… it’s a privilege.” With Hansen’s voice catching at this point, Smith wrapped it up. Both appeared relieved at the decision.
Later, Hansen told the assembled media how proud he was that his players responded to what had happened in Perth seven days prior. He was thoroughly composed at this point but there was no doubt this test was more special than most.
He had already been recognised by the players for reaching 100 tests alongside former head coach Sir Graham Henry, Hansen’s predecessor. But Hansen’s wife Natasha and children had bought him a watch with an engraved message, a gift, one could safely say, that hit a different but just as significant emotional chord.
The victory over the Wallabies will allow Hansen to leave for new pastures after the World Cup without ever losing the Bledisloe Cup. “Not on my watch,” was the mantra, and, given the way his men performed despite the pressure and expectation was a credit to them and Hansen’s coaching group, including assistant Ian Foster, who was presented with a ceremonial mere marking his own 100th test.
With the keyboard warriors writing off Hansen and his team as old and tired and next to useless after the Perth loss it’s no wonder the head coach was feeling more pressure than usual last week. Hansen does well to ignore the worst of it, but some would have filtered through.
“Everyone externally was starting to get a bit shaky, starting to question whether the coaches still had it, the players still had it,” Hansen said.
There were questions about his skipper Kieran Read, Hansen said. Some punters wearing black at Perth’s Optus Stadium were muttering about how Read was apparently a shadow of his former self, seemingly unaware of how compromised he was by the sending off of Scott Barrett and the mountain of defensive work he got through, and clearly that criticism had got through to Hansen too.
“The external group of our nation can now breathe slightly easier,” he added.
But he continued: “The day New Zealand rugby doesn’t have an external scrutiny like it does [is the day] the game is not where it was. People care, they have high expectations and those high expectations I think drive the high internal expectations as well.”
If the former policeman and current racehorse owner and enthusiast sometimes sounds like he has seen it all, that’s because he pretty much has. And that’s life in general. As All Blacks head coach his record after 100 tests is 87 wins, four draws and only nine defeats.
Only Australia have beaten the All Blacks more than twice during Hansen’s reign.
He has the experience to know what’s right and what isn’t and the confidence to go with his instincts if in any doubt. He has said before that his work as a cop gave him insights into human behaviour and he has spoken before too about how working with horses has taught him the importance of picking up cues and adapting.
After assisting Henry to the 2011 victory in New Zealand and leading the All Blacks to the 2015 triumph in England, there could hardly be a better person to head the coaching group to Japan.
Which is not to say he’ll do it all himself. Foster, who, along with Scott Robertson is a leading contender to replace Hansen next year, will play his own part as a foil and occasional provocateur.
“He’s a strong man, Foz,” Hansen said a day after handing the Wallabies a hiding. “You may not think he is but he’s got his own opinions and he doesn’t change them too easily.
“We trust each other a lot. My whole philosophy on coaching is if you give people the job then you’ve got to step back and let them do it and empower them to do it and guide them when you need to guide them.
“We’re good mates and we’ll always be good mates.”
Hansen’s record as All Blacks head coach
Drawn: 4 (South Africa 2, British and Irish Lions, Australia)
Lost: 9 (Australia 3, Ireland 2, South Africa 2, England, British and Irish Lions)
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