Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

The Steve Hansen story: How All Blacks coach went from flushing the dunny to flush with success

Steve Hansen is quite happy to be underestimated. He's not so keen on being misunderstood.

When he assumed the top All Blacks coaching job in 2012 after eight years as an assistant, no one gave him a chance. He was, almost universally, viewed as being out of his depth and destined to fail.

He let the nation analyse his every perceived fault while he went about building the most dominant rugby team in history. It was a classic case of under-promising and over-delivering.


And with success came the realisation Hansen wasn't what a nation thought he was. Pretty much everyone had read him wrong. He can't say he was faultless in projecting himself as something he wasn't because he more than played his part.

As a former policeman, he all too regularly came across as if he was in the interview room, keen to get on with the real business of extracting a confession.

As assistant to Graham Henry between 2004 and 2011, his laconic, deadpan wit didn't have the right platform to be seen for what it was.

Instead of being the product of a natural warmth and capacity to use humour as both a defensive and disarming mechanism, Hansen more typically presented as gruff and boorish. That's the danger with cameo roles - it takes an acquired skill to play them and, as has become apparent now, Hansen was never suited to the part.

Steve Hansen poses with the Webb Ellis Cup enroute to Christchurch for the New Zealand All Blacks welcome home celebrations. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen poses with the Webb Ellis Cup enroute to Christchurch for the New Zealand All Blacks welcome home celebrations. Photo / Getty Images

It's now possible to look back on Hansen's time as an assistant with a new perspective. He and Henry were largely on the same page around basic rugby philosophy, but not always. There were times when Hansen would have been fighting his natural instincts and true feelings to endorse policies he wasn't convinced were right.

It's testament to his conviction that the team always comes first that in eight years as assistant, he was nothing but publicly loyal and supportive. He was never an undermining or disruptive influence within a coaching unit that was under intense pressure in 2008 and 2009.

If he thought the wholesale selection rotation was overdone in 2005, he never said as much. If he wasn't sure the likes of Jerry Collins and Chris Masoe were treated with the respect they deserved after the 2007 World Cup, he kept it to himself.

But for all that he never gave much away, he gave everything away. In 2009, the All Blacks were in the middle of a rotten year, losing four of their first eight tests.

The coaches had collectively failed to see the game had headed into a dark phase of kick and chase and injuries had bitten hard.

It was a perfect storm and riding it hard was a media corp who felt they were speaking for a disgruntled public. The whole business of whether the New Zealand Rugby Union had done the right thing by reappointing Henry and his team refused to die and, given it was the All Blacks forward pack who were deemed guilty of under-performing, Hansen, as forwards coach, felt the pressure the most.

After a third-straight defeat to the Springboks - another game in which the All Blacks lineout had badly malfunctioned - multiple prominent voices claimed it was time for the axe to fall on Hansen.

His reaction was to revert to a quote he attributed to legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi: "They haven't built any statues of critics or wannabes yet. My job is not listening to those people, it's about making sure we stay on task and make sure we do the job we have got to do and do it well."

It was the thin end of a one-liner wedge, as eight weeks earlier he'd tapped perfectly into the psyche of most New Zealanders when, after a victorious but dire All Blacks performance against Italy, he succinctly said it was time to "flush the dunny and move on".

After the loss to the Boks, plenty felt it was time for the NZRU to flush the dunny on Hansen and move on.

Axing Hansen in 2009 would have been one of the biggest mistakes of the professional era. The national body would have been like everyone else and been wrong in seeing Hansen's reaction to the pressure he was under as evidence he was out of his depth.

Graham Henry and Steve Hansen in 2009. Photo / Getty Images
Graham Henry and Steve Hansen in 2009. Photo / Getty Images

Instead, it was evidence he needed help in understanding that he could be loyal to players yet better manage the public appetite for honest assessment of their performance.

Throughout 2009, that was a conundrum for him; a conflicting agenda he couldn't make sense of and, as a result, it appeared as if he lost confidence in being himself.

It was about this time he also began to formulate thoughts about wanting to succeed Henry after the 2011 World Cup.

At that stage, results were the least of his worries in regard to his future job prospects. He needed to quickly and dramatically change the media and public perception of himself.

He sought help from former TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser and, arguably, one of the great sporting transitions began.

"There are people that I go to and talk to, particularly after 2009 when I was fighting the media," Hansen revealed to NZ Rugby World in 2011. "Rightly or wrongly, I'd had a gutsful of a lot of things and thought I would take them on. I found out the media are mightier than the individual and they fought back and it wasn't pretty.

"The biggest help has come in how to approach it. My background is as a policeman and you don't say too much when you're a policeman. You don't give too much away. For me, the players are the people that my loyalty goes to. I'm never going to bag a player publicly.

"If I have something to say, I'll say it to his face. At times, I have been mistrusting with where we have been going with something in the media and felt I have to protect my player and done it by clamming up and saying nothing. After 2009, I sought help with that to see if I could do it a different way but still protect the integrity of my players."

What has become apparent with hindsight is that much of Hansen's angst, frustration and public failings of that period were caused by not having the total control he craved.

Far from being out of his depth as an assistant, he was locked into a role that didn't allow him to use the full extent of his talents. There's always debate about whether leaders are born or made: Hansen is proof of the former.

He appears happiest when he's across all the detail of all his players and management team. Responsibility for decision-making sits comfortably with him and he clearly likes to be the controlling force.

Too easily and readily people with such an obvious force of personality and desire to lead are flippantly labelled 'control freaks' but that term implies an element of the individual overstepping their jurisdiction, of being overbearing and domineering.

Steve Hansen (centre), far from out of his depth as an assistant coach. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen (centre), far from out of his depth as an assistant coach. Photo / Getty Images

That's not Hansen. If it were, the players wouldn't be as obviously relaxed and driven as they are, the coaching team wouldn't be as united and loyal as they have been and performance and results would reflect the folly of one man thinking it was up to him to micro-manage everyone.

Head coach is Hansen's happy place. He doesn't have to go into bat for selection decisions or game plans that don't have his full approval. As head coach, he decides what he does and doesn't tell the media and he can better strike that balance between serving the All Blacks' stakeholders and protecting his players. And as head coach, perhaps more significantly than anything else, he's been able to create a culture that allows individuals to be themselves.

Expectations around performance and personal conduct are as high as they have always been, if not higher, but no one is expected to be switched-on the whole time or conform to some kind of mythical notion of how they should conduct themselves in their own time.

"As a team, as soon as you come into it, Shag [Steve Hansen] says if you want to joke around or have a crack at someone, then go for it as long as you are willing to get it back," veteran player Cory Jane said in November 2014. "The culture is a lot of fun and I can be myself, tease people and not be beaten up for it. It's not as bad as people think."

It's easy to forget Hansen was once at war with the world. Now it's hard to think of any figure in world rugby who is more comfortable in their assigned role.

Being in charge has given him the freedom to be who he is and, with it, he's now fully understood. His one-liners now don't paint him as anything other than genuinely entertaining and willing to engage with his audience.

His demeanour is relentlessly upbeat and he is, in the coaching world at least, the only gig in town worth buying a ticket for. He holds court with a mixture of humour, honesty and clarity. The media who used to turn up ready to draw their knives, now pull up these days with a coffee in hand and a healthy respect for a man who has not quite reinvented himself but been happy to let everyone believe he has.

Unlike some of his predecessors and peers, Hansen hasn't bought into the need to speak like some mystic. His language is precise and unambiguous - the sort of stuff to which two blokes leaning on a paddock fence can relate. There's a directness to what he says and still an economy - a combination that has managed to bring the players closer to the heart of the public.

That has been achieved on the back of his innate reading of others. Wayne Smith, whose association with Hansen goes back more than 20 years, said earlier this year he has never met anyone with better intuition. Hansen has some kind of sixth sense that enables him to read the mood and physical state of his players with stunning accuracy.

It's that same sixth sense that enabled him to win neutral minds if not hearts at the World Cup. He was in his element in England, serious and profound when he needed to be, honest and passionate when he thought it was right and funny when, like a good counter-attack, he sensed it was on.

On the day he announced the All Blacks team to play France for the quarter-final, the chosen room at the Swansea Rugby Club was crammed with French journalists eager to quiz Hansen about the ghosts of 2007.

There was a crackle of tension in the air which became a stunned silence when Hansen said: "There's been a great relationship between the two countries for a long, long time and, apart from the Rainbow Warrior, we've probably been on the same page most of the time."

After the silence, there was laughter. It was an almost cathartic moment that acknowledged the passion, pain, similarities, differences, shared experience and depth of history between the two nations.

After the game, which the All Blacks won with a dazzling performance, he was asked if he had anything else up his sleeve. "Just my arm," he replied and, once again, the unifying force of laughter became his weapon.

It was one thing to coach the All Blacks to World Cup success, another again to do it with a sense of life being more important than sport. If Hansen was feeling the pressure, he never once showed it.

By the end of the tournament, the man a nation was once unsure about had everyone a little panicked when he said he didn't think he'd stay beyond 2017.

No one in New Zealand liked the sound of that. Hansen has become an institution, the sort of figure to whom everyone now relates and enjoys.

Everyone gets his laconic humour, can see that his loyalty begins and ends with the team but that he understands, too, that the All Blacks are the property of the people and they can't be shut out.

It seems certain he will stay on until 2019. It's a done deal bar the detail and, if money is the only barrier, who wouldn't agree that New Zealand Rugby should give him what he wants and move on?

- Herald on Sunday

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