By WYNNE GRAY
An itinerant rugby coaching career has given Blues boss Peter Sloane a new slant on life.
He believes he has become more accepting, more adaptable and has had to be, in hitching his skills for two-year terms to the Crusaders, Highlanders and Blues.
Now that he is "home", or at least within the Super 12 franchise boundaries - where he built a strong reputation during 147 games as a hooker for Northland from 1972 to 1983 - he feels even more settled.
There is still plenty of crust and hard edge to Sloane, who gained his solitary test jersey against England at Twickenham in 1979 and was on the All Black staff in 1998-99.
"But I have mellowed, I have lightened up ... absolutely," he said, "even if my family might want to dispute that.
"When I first went to the Crusaders there was only 1 1/2 ways to do things and most of that was thumping my hand into another, really. Wayne [Smith] was the quieter one and I could be the thumper."
But as the game has altered, so has Sloane. He accepts that he, like his players, best responds to a mix of the "bark and cuddle afterwards" routine rather than the persistent vocal floggings which used to be a coaching dictum.
"If we think back to some of our early days in playing and coaching we might cringe, but everyone moves on. The game changes so fast if you stand there, it moves."
Sloane, a builder who started a construction company when he was 26, did not get into coaching officially until 1997 with the Crusaders.
He was involved as player-coach at his Hikurangi club side, helped old mate Joe Morgan with age-group sides and brother-in-law Sid Going with Northland. Life was full-on for Sloane, wife Doreen and their two children and he admits he battled to get away from his hands-on approach to business.
But a battle with cancer in the early 1990s changed his ideas. As he underwent treatment and recuperated, Sloane thought about taking more chances and broadening the life experiences for his entire family.
"It is not the best club to join but the one you learn the most from," he said.
"I saw a lot of guys who never came back. The marble bounced my way, I saw how others battled and you have to back yourself and be the difference."
Sloane was offered the chance to join the Crusaders in 1996 and has been coaching in New Zealand ever since. There was a glitch during the last World Cup dramas but Sloane felt fortunate to get Super 12 reprieves with the Highlanders and Blues.
"I was glad to be able to come back in much the same way I am happy people like Graham Henry are back here with the Blues where they can impart their knowledge. It is not easy to walk back in.
"We have lost too many highly skilled people from rugby, we do not have a big enough base to be able to let them go."
Sloane has had to modify his styles and approaches from his opening stint with the Crusaders to his current portfolio with the Blues, where he is a 54-year-old European coaching a group dominated by Polynesian players.
"I love people, that is the first thing," Sloane said. "Within our management group we have to get the best out of everyone and my job is to be a facilitator to make that happen.
"Sometimes with these boys you have to get the handshake right but it is all about binding up as a family, making sure our culture is right.
"I have to make sure I do not have too many senior moments," he laughs, "but I love what these guys do, how they do it and I understand how they operate. Remember I played all my footy up north with a lot of Maori boys so I have a fair inkling how they work."
Sloane likes a barrier between his public and private lives. That much of him remains old-school, the shutters go up when questions cross the line between work and family.
What is important is how the Blues perform, how he and his coaching staff deliver, not the life and times of Peter Henry Sloane.
But there are glimpses. He would like to spend more time at his coastal property up north, he wants to stay coaching, he tries to make as much time as he can for friends and family, part of him says he would like to have a crack at coaching Northland some day or even the All Blacks.
But right now his focus is all blue. Coaching can be a grind, there is little downtime, but he loves the adrenaline of the job while recognising the insecurity if results are poor.
"The hammer is still polished if I get tipped over," he said.
He does not intend being back in construction next season. The Blues went through some tough times last year and Sloane thinks their self-belief can help them push on this year. He wants the Blues to emulate the disciplined techniques and assurance which the Crusaders exude.
That comparison is just a week away.
By WYNNE GRAY