Steve Hansen: Man in black

By Alan Perrott

Steve Hansen’s time with the All Blacks has been marked by triumph, and by family tragedy. He talks to Alan Perrott about regrets, rituals and life beyond rugby

Adversity is not a pleasant thing, a lot of hurt comes with it, but if you can deal with it, you'll come out of it stronger - Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images
Adversity is not a pleasant thing, a lot of hurt comes with it, but if you can deal with it, you'll come out of it stronger - Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images

He's a rugby, racing and beer cocktail. With a big dash of family. Actually, let's make that family, rugby and racing. This is the stuff that makes All Black coach Steve Hansen what, in the old days, was called a "good bastard"- a bloke with a rock-solid sense of how things should be, who favours deeds over words and help over hugs.

If you assume that also means inherently conservative, you may be surprised by his reaction to seeing some men kiss.

"We can be pretty staunch here," says Hansen, "but I enjoyed how the family thing operated in France, with males in particular. When they met for the first time in the morning, they'd say they loved [each other] and kiss. I found it pretty strange to see males kiss each other like that, but it was so right, they were just showing their love for each other. We don't do stuff like that so much here but maybe that'll change over time."

He even did his bit to kick things off, by bringing the practice home with him when he returned from an 18-month stint playing rugby in La Rochelle.

"Not the kissing. Dad would never have been comfortable with that. We'd shake each other's hand first thing in the day then again last thing at night. It became a family ritual ..."

It's now an All Black ritual, too, whether it be a handshake, fist bump or hug, everyone acknowledges everyone else, regardless of whether they be legend or newbie.

They'll do it again tonight before taking on the English at Twickenham. It's not only about respect and valuing team-mates, it's about family, a family that can celebrate success and deal with failure together.

Again, that's probably a lot more touchy feely than many would expect from a stoic southern man like Hansen. Even one you'd assume is living his dream.

Hansen makes no bones of his adoration for the All Blacks - to the point where, having worn his body out trying to make the grade, he'd still swap his entire coaching career (including the World Cup win) for a test cap without hesitation.

All Black coach Graham Henry, assistant coash Steve Hansen, captain Richie McCaw and Dan Carter with the Webb Ellis Cup at the parade. Photo / NZH
All Black coach Graham Henry, assistant coash Steve Hansen, captain Richie McCaw and Dan Carter with the Webb Ellis Cup at the parade. Photo / NZH

Hansen's success as All Black coach is unarguable. There's the World Cup victory two years ago and, judging by that epic match in Johannesburg last month, he has taken the team to new heights. Even the players, privately, are saying it's the best team environment they've experienced.

But Hansen is a family man first and his time with the team has been marked by the loss of both his parents, Des and Lauriss. Each was a massive blow, with lingering impacts.
So, it's fair to say there's more inner reflection going on with the big man than his public image might suggest. His private life has been exactly that: "I don't stand on rooftops shouting about what I've done."

Perhaps he learned to keep his cards close after his first life plan failed to pan out.

He was raised in Mosgiel, opposite Memorial Park, home of the Taieri Eels. For rugby nuts it was perfect, but his father, Des Hansen, dreamed of dairy farming and saved hard to buy enough land to graze cattle and indulge the family's other great obsession, horses, gallopers in particular, which they bred, trained and raced themselves.

"I grew up riding," says Hansen, who admits he even harboured a dream of becoming a jockey, "but I kind of outgrew that ..."

His rugby education was well in hand from an early age. Aside from his sports-mad parents, his coach at Outram School was former All Black (and later All Black coach) Laurie Mains. "It was one of those rural schools where everyone played everything because we didn't have enough kids not to, so I tried everything, I guess, and realised early on that I was pretty competitive."

He made the Taieri College 1st XV as a fourth-former, but a year later his parents made the difficult decision to sell the family farm and move to Christchurch where they felt their three sons and daughter could find better futures.

Hansen finished his fifth form year in Mosgiel then travelled north to spend the summer holidays knocking about their new home, the King George Hotel.

Having pub-owning parents can't have hurt his social prospects at Christchurch Boys' High School and it certainly gave his sporting ambitions a leg up. The bar was popular with local bus drivers, who invited him to join their social teams; and Marist rugby players, who recruited his dad as a coach.

As for school: "I was pretty aimless and didn't do much academically. I really just went to eat my play-lunch and play sport. You might say I look back on that with a little regret."

But while his studies drifted, his rugby skills shone.

"He lived and breathed the game," says his Christchurch Boys' 1st XV coach, Mike Lindroos. "He absolutely hated losing".

The team's biggest game of any year is against cross-town rivals, Christ College. Hansen's first derby experience fizzled when he was hospitalised with a shoulder injury in the opening minutes, so he was desperate to make up for it the next year. They lost for the first time in more than 10 years.

"He took it very personally," says Lindroos. "He was so intense he was almost in tears. I tried to tell him it wasn't his fault, they just beat us, but he hated everything about it."

With school over, Hansen signed on at the local freezing works.

"I got a great education there, one of the best universities you can go to. I was what, 17, 18? And enjoying myself as young people did in those days."

He was also playing senior club rugby at Marist, where he was coached by his dad.
In 1984, Hansen was selected at centre for the Canterbury B team. He made the A team two years later and found himself competing with All Black Victor Simpson for the 13 jersey. His break came when Simpson left for the rebel Cavaliers tour to South Africa, enabling Hansen to start in 10 of the province's 19 matches, scoring two tries and a drop goal. Unfortunately, 1987 fizzled and he struggled for game time, starting in only one match, a friendly against Fiji.

His All Black dream apparently over, Hansen applied for police training college, only to be knocked back over a troublesome melanoma. Oh well, the French had trained with his club side during the World Cup and he'd shown enough to get an invitation to play over there.

So, despite speaking no French, he spent the next 18 months in the coastal resort town of La Rochelle.

It was a liberating experience, not only because it was his first trip overseas.

"For a lot of my career I'd been coached by my dad, and being coached by your father isn't easy.

As much as I enjoyed it and tried to show him that I was up to the job and play well, at the same time you're impacted by that. I mean I wouldn't change any of it for quids, but in France nobody knew Steve Hansen, so Steve Hansen could do whatever he wanted."

Upon his return, he was accepted into the police.

"It had always been something I'd wanted to do. I don't really know why. I had some mates who'd joined and they seemed to enjoy it. I thought I could make a difference I suppose."

It says something about Hansen that he stayed in the force for seven years without attempting to advance beyond constable. He was happy enough working his Christchurch beat and being one of the guys.

It also got him into Gordon Hunter's unbeaten 1990 Combined Services side, which he captained against Buller and West Coast.

"That was a great way to finish my playing career," he says. "My body was starting to tell me it was time to quit anyway. My knees were knackered."

Still only 31, he wasn't ready to give up sport altogether, so he decided to try coaching and "give something back".

When Marist surprisingly turned him down, High School Old Boys started badgering him to go with them, but it took several "yeah but nahs" before he could set aside his old club loyalty.

He did well. With his dad there for advice and his mum, as ever, a constant presence on the sideline, he steered the club to several titles and caught the eye of their provincial union.

At the same time, he was feeling increasingly dis-illusioned with the criminal justice system so, in 1996, he went part-time with the police and took up a job with the Canterbury Academy, while also taking the backs for Vance Stewart's provincial team.

He took his father's ideas with him, not all of them tactical.

For Des, coaching was about building relationships and watching how people responded to what gets thrown at them. It's a style the Hansens had honed on their horses.

"We can learn a lot from horses," says Hansen. "I enjoy their company and have a lot of respect for them. There's a lot of non-verbal stuff going on there."

Not to mention unconventional stuff as well: our All Black coach has even done a course in horse whispering. In the course's final test he was given a horse specifically chosen to challenge his personality; it was skittish and flighty: "There was no way I could bully it into doing what I wanted. I had to gently coax it, take my time with it and watch its body language. It was a really interesting process to learn from."

He then spent three years winning everything going with Canterbury and the Crusaders.

When Crusaders coach Wayne Smith left in 2000 for an ill-fated stint with the All Blacks, Hansen and Robbie Deans faced off for the plum job. Despite an arguably weaker CV, Deans got the nod and he invited Hansen to join him in the unfamiliar role of forwards coach.

Looking back, he says it might not have been what he wanted, but it was definitely what he needed, and he set about learning a new set of skills.


Canterbury looked like being his future - until a phone call changed everything.

Graham Henry had caused a furore when he'd left New Zealand to coach Wales in 1998. Now he wanted Hansen to join him.

In a portent of what he was in for, Hansen wasn't met at the airport - Henry had got himself lost driving around Oxford.

Then, after only a month in the job, he was asked to pop round to Henry's place for a chat.

"I had no idea he was going to resign," says Hansen. "That was a surprise but I was more concerned about him than what it meant for me at the time. I knew he'd blamed himself [for the team's failings] and it had been a really tough time for him. He's a good man and we all have tough times, you have to look out for each other."

Hansen was appointed as his successor and it didn't take long to understand what Henry had been up against. His opponents weren't only on the pitch, they infested the rugby establishment and, when the national team went from bad to worse - losing 10 on the trot - his problems only intensified.

At one point a newspaper poll named Hansen the second-most-hated man in Wales, behind Osama bin Laden and just ahead of Saddam Hussein.

"The game there was in a hell of a state and the culture was pretty average, to be frank.

Not being successful was a bit of an eye-opener as well, it was the first time I'd had to take a good, hard look at everything I was doing ... and I had to learn about the political aspects, about how to deal with all that and the public profile.

"I probably got 20 years' experience in two and a half years. There was one moment, after one game, when I thought to myself, 'how the hell are you going to do this?' I spent a couple of days feeling sorry for myself then pulled myself together and got on with it.

Adversity is not a pleasant thing, a lot of hurt comes with it, but if you can deal with it, you'll come out of it stronger."

Then, when Wales showed real enterprise at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, despite losing to the All Blacks and England, word spread that Hansen might renew his contract and stay on.

It was never going to happen. He might have finally got his tongue around the Welsh anthem (he still sings it when the two sides meet) but he'd made a promise to his two daughters that he'd be coming home and "it's important that if you promise your kids something, you make sure you deliver".

Just as he was starting to wonder what he'd do for a crust when he got here, his phone rang again. It was Henry, again. "How would you like to help me coach the All Blacks?"

The whole experience was great until Hansen was called back home midway through the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Europe.

His mother, Lauriss, was in hospital with cancer. She was dying and while he wanted to stay by her, she wouldn't hear of it and shooed him away to win the Cup. Instead, they promptly lost to France in Cardiff.

"Was that a difficult time? Shit, yes. Losing someone like that, and then the massive sense of guilt over the Cup that came with it. I carried that around with me and I had to set it right."

More than anything, winning the Cup in 2011 came as a relief.

"The country really needed us to win and we needed to win it for ourselves; we needed to finally get rid of that monkey."

It also gave Hansen the opening to take charge of his favourite thing in the world. Still, his reaction upon hearing he was the new All Black coach was: "Wow ... okay, I've got it, now what am I going to do? And for a brief moment there was some self-doubt and this huge sense of responsibility ... but then it's just 'righto, let's get cracking'."

First, he sat down to figure out his strengths and weaknesses and who could plug the gaps. They had to be people prepared to challenge him.

"That can be hard at times because I get a real smacking, but it's important that always happens. We have so many good people in our group and I don't have all the ideas."

An even bigger struggle has been dealing with the camera in the coaches' box. While he absolutely hates having his emotional responses broadcast live he enjoys using it to pass on secret messages. He won't say what rubbing his nose means, but it definitely means something to someone.


In october last year, just as he was finding his groove, his father's health declined rapidly until a stroke killed him. Again, Hansen was away with the All Blacks, so he rushed home, leaving the team to tour Australia without him.

Denny Baker, the Hallmark Stud owner who looks after several of Hansen's horses, says it was a terrible shock for everyone. Des Hansen had been a close friend for years.

"He'd been a huge influence on Steve, huge. He always expected Steve to measure up ... they're both humble men with a great way of looking at things without overcomplicating them. And I miss him. He was just a great fella."

It's a loss that gets 54-year-old Hansen reflecting on rugby's personal impact.

"We're away about 250 days a year, every year, so there's guilt about missing the kids [he has two daughters and two sons from two previous marriages], sport and birthdays. Sometimes there's a lot of guilt."

He grudgingly accepted his Queen's Birthday honour (Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in 2012 on behalf of his and all the other families that help keep the All Blacks humming along. His father, partner Tash Marshall and his four kids were all at the ceremony with him.

"It's hard on all of them. But that's why it's important to make sure you make the most of the time you do have and be genuinely present for the family ... it's the little things, like if I'm on the phone, I'll stay in the car and finish the conversation before going in and, if someone calls, it won't be life-threatening, so I push decline and have that moment with Tash and the kids.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen with family. Photo / NZH
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen with family. Photo / NZH

"As for marriage, well, you can blame me for [the two failures]. I'm not going to put that on rugby. Breakdowns happen because two people don't get it right for whatever reason.
"But apart from that, I love being part of this group. It's a pleasure and a privilege every day and we make sure we have a lot of fun doing it. But I know there will come a time when they'll need to move on with someone else.

"I don't dwell on that too much. I'm too busy trying to achieve what we need to achieve. But if I'm looking forward to anything, it'll be having more time with the family and just being normal.

"I might just crawl off and live somewhere no one can find me."

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