By WYNNE GRAY
In the winter of 1968, on the frost-numbed fields at Outram Primary School on the Taieri Plain south of Dunedin, Steve Hansen first came under the rugby tutelage of Laurie Mains.
Their lives collided for several years when Mains dabbled in a teaching career and Hansen went to the school closest to his parents' dairy farm.
"He was my first rugby coach," Hansen recalled before tonight's NPC final between his Canterbury side and Mains' Otago.
"We used to play country schools, but Laurie formed a team so we could take on other sides in Mosgiel.
"He put me in at halfback for games which I suppose you might call touch now."
Links between the coaches did not end when Mains left teaching for a farming career and other commercial enterprises.
Hansen later dated one of Mains' nieces until he and his family shifted to Christchurch and the distance from there to Dunedin curtailed the romance.
Down south, Mains changed employment but never wavered from rugby as he played fullback for the Southern club, Otago and the All Blacks before coaching all three.
After being encouraged by the legendary Vic Cavanagh and showing a natural aptitude, Mains decided he wanted to be a forwards coach first.
"The funny thing I think is that former backs have a better appreciation of the sort of ball they need - they have a better overall appreciation of what is needed from forwards," Mains said.
While Mains chose to direct forward play, Hansen had a similar task thrust on him after he finished a steady 25-game provincial career as a centre for Canterbury.
Mains and Hansen are a rare duo at the top level of rugby - backs who have delved into the mysteries of forward play and become respected analysts and coaches.
Hansen started coaching the backline for his High School Old Boys Club and did the same job when he was asked to help Canterbury in 1996.
When Robbie Deans became Canterbury coach, he took the backs and Hansen offered to look after the pack.
"I had to learn fast and I went out of my way to learn as much as I could," he said.
Hansen tapped into the frontrow knowledge of locals such as Mike Cron and John Mills, the loose forward expertise of Don Hayes, and most of all, the wisdom of Des, his father and coaching mentor.
"As a back, none of my ideas were set in concrete. I was prepared to go outside the square, but I also had to run it past guys with the know-how," Hansen said.
"I wanted to have conversations with all the forwards on the same technical level; it was a matter of having their respect.
"Don Hayes was a link to the past and someone to really bounce ideas off."
Hansen's father coached until a year ago and he still makes the occasional guest appearance.
His portfolio of pupils includes coaches such as Vance Stewart, Adrian Kennedy, Bernie Stewart, Murray Henderson and Steve Baker.
While Hansen was learning his trade which brought him New Zealand A honours last year, Mains was easing away from his All Black work by coaching the Cats in the Super 12.
In Christchurch tonight, their worlds will collide again.
It is a provincial ending for both.
Hansen leaves next week to be Graham Henry's assistant at Wales until after the 2003 World Cup and Mains is due to hand over the Otago job to his assistants, Greg Cooper and Wayne Graham.
"The basic techniques for coaching forwards have not changed," Mains said.
"You have to concentrate on lineouts, scrums and support play at the tackle.
"But there are a lot of defensive patterns for forwards now that are much more detailed and crucial, though a lot of the basics have not altered.
"It is just working out the emphasis on which basics to use."
Hansen's side will be favoured to go one better than their defeat to Wellington in last year's final.
Since they lost to North Harbour in the middle of the competition, Canterbury have surged ahead and brought another dimension to the NPC.
"That was a bit of a turning point for our season," Hansen said.
"We should have been better than we were, but we were reintroducing our All Blacks. It was a bad night and we might have got a bit ahead of ourselves.
"But we needed to toughen up mentally, to not get distracted. I think there are three components to that - self-belief, discipline and desire.
"If we have those in equal proportions you can do anything, otherwise you can be vulnerable. The key for us about this final is being genuine about our work."
2001 NPC schedule/scoreboard
NPC Division One squads
By WYNNE GRAY