Edited extract from Steve Hansen: The Legacy by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins NZ, RRP $49.99) available August 4th
If Steve Hansen be summed up in a word, it would be competitor.
He saw everything through the lens of a competitor, as if everything he faced in life was an opportunity to win. That's why he was contrarian at times– fighting some competition or other that was going on only in his head. It didn't matter what it was, Hansen had needed firstly to add a competitive element to it, then win. That's why he loved horse racing – it was such a simple thing, training an animal to run faster than another animal.
Rugby, he liked to think, had its own simplicity: two teams trying to score more points than the other in 80 minutes. He lived for the contest – the battle of wits, the ability to analyse strengths and weakness and build ways in which to exploit them. He loved the business of strategising, plotting, selecting and preparing a group of highly motivated men to play a similarly motivated group. That was the art of coaching to him and where the voice of Des rang loudest in his head with his many sayings and observations stored carefully in Hansen's hard drive. One in particular was on constant replay – you get all your options off the opposition. It provided such a deep insight into Hansen – in that he was constantly hunting for weaknesses to exploit, be it on or off the field. That's why his happy place was the training ground. That's where he had started life as a coach and had spent most of his time. That's what it was all about for him.
But in the early part of 2018, he was finding it increasingly hard to think of rugby as a simple game, and he was certain that the purity of the contest was being impacted by multiple influences. The business of getting the players ready for the 80 minutes was becoming harder and his job was pulling and pushing him in all sorts of different directions. By 2016 Super Rugby featured 18 teams – including one team each from Japan and Argentina – and didn't finish until August. This ridiculous schedule wasn't just destroying the planet, it was destroying the players. It was untenable, but rugby's executives were never going to be persuaded to change what everyone could see was a broken system. The volume of rugby had increased over the years for one simple reason – the suits said it brought in more money and they needed more money. Professional rugby by early 2018 was a sport that had become enslaved to a warped economic model that made no sense. The players were playing 30 per cent more games than they were a decade ago, to make New Zealand Rugby about 30 per cent more money than they were a decade ago. But the costs of playing these games had gone up by more than 30 per cent. It was the ultimate zero-sum game.
The economics of professional rugby in New Zealand was even more warped in that the All Blacks were the only asset that made a profit and they accounted for about 80 per cent of the total revenue. The cashflow came from them and that meant they were under pressure to make more money by playing more tests and doing more for sponsors.
Players had to fit a greater number of commercial requests into their schedules and Hansen had never forgotten that his first defeat as All Blacks coach was against England in an additional fixture that was arranged to net NZR $4m. The need to make money was compromising performance and player welfare.
"The job changed from being a coach to a manager/ coach," said Hansen. "The one thing that changed the most was the commercial side of the game because of the need for money. You have high performance on one side and commercialism on the other.
"Whether people like it or not, the only real commercial commodity that the NZR has is the All Blacks and the All Blacks brand has therefore been put around the Sevens, the Black Ferns, the Maˉori and personally I think that is where most of the pressure came from because it became a real battle to get the balance right. And once the balance goes in favour of commercialism over high-performance then it is interfering with how you can play.
"I believe my job was to make sure that never happened. But I think at times that got very close. People didn't understand that what they were doing was demanding more and more of the players, that they were looking to sell more and more of our IP to make a dollar and the risk of that is that the brand would be damaged if we got beaten."
Hansen was never going to roll over and let his job be compromised and so he fought to try to ensure the players were managed through the system. All the science and his own experience told him that if players were asked to play pre-season games in mid-January, then try to get through 18 Super Rugby games proper and 14 tests, they were going to break, so from 2016, he successfully campaigned for individual All Blacks to be subject to playing restrictions during Super Rugby.
Super Rugby coaches hated it. They pushed back.
"Commercialism was one of three big political things," said Hansen. "Another was managing Super Rugby and the media's perception of that because you have got five Super coaches who are desperate to win. You have to try to get them to understand that they could still win but actually if you manage these players you will get them to play better. But it is a fine line to manage that. From my point of view it comes back to looking after the Golden Egg. The better players had to have a break. Because of commercialism we have to play lots of tests and we were down to a 12-week break between your last game and your next game and no other contact sport has that. So that created a whole load of political stuff that we had to deal with and if you get a Super coach who doesn't like it because he is thinking about himself or can't see the bigger picture because we haven't explained it well enough, then he goes and has a moan at the media, then the media lap that up because it sells papers. So you are dealing with that all the time. That's the politics that are in rugby now because of the need for more money.
"It is exhausting and frustrating. I think, given the situation, if you changed the personnel around and took the guy who was complaining the most and gave him the All Blacks job, he'd want exactly the same. You were dealing with something that was a little bit selfish and I understand why they wanted what they wanted. They wanted to win and that's what they were there to do but at the same time you wanted to have them to have a little more foresight but sometimes they didn't."
The other great distortion affecting the purity of the contest was the catastrophic state of refereeing. Test matches had become almost a lottery as to how they were refereed.
There was no consistency between games or even within games and it was almost impossible to make tactical plans or develop technical skills in the face of such uncertainty. To compound matters, World Rugby was continually adapting existing laws, asking for new interpretations and introducing measures that were often ill-conceived.
This 'wheel of fortune' refereeing was another impurity impacting the contest. It was a battle increasingly eating up Hansen's time and mental energy. Hansen was spending more time communicating with his fellow international coaches – particularly Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt and Rassie Erasmus - about their concerns over the chronically awful officiating and the lack of confidence they had in World Rugby referee boss Alain Rolland.
Their biggest collective concern was that they felt Rolland and World Rugby were in danger of losing empathy for the fluidity of the game and the dynamic nature of the athletes. They supported the governing body's battle to lower tackling heights and penalise contact to the head with either a yellow or red card. But the law had to allow for mitigating factors. Everyone wanted the psychopaths brought to justice and forced to tackle lower.
The technically lazy had to be red-carded, too. But the reality about a lot of high tackles or collisions where there was contact to the head was that they were accidental. Hansen, like other international coaches, thought Rolland was a bureaucrat with no feel for the game. Worse, he thought that Rolland was doing his best to ruin the game, and was a toxic element destroying the purity of the contest.
"You have the politics that come with World Rugby as well," said Hansen. "We have been playing this game for 150 years and we still can't come out with a list of here is what the referee will do today, tomorrow and the next day and this is what their job is. Here is a list of what the assistant referees will do and be consistent across every game, every time you play. They say referees don't have an influence on the game, that's a nonsense. They have a massive influence. The politics around North versus South. We have to be bigger than that. It should just be one game but it's not. You have got the Six Nations who I think control World Rugby. They are the mini-mafia and it creates a lot of politics out of that. There are a lot of people who have got a nice cushy number and they don't want to rock the boat. For me, I have never been one to not rock the boat if the boat needs to be rocked. I have probably upset a few people along the way but to me the game is way more important than having security in your job or winning or losing. The game is bigger than everyone. Any team, any individual and if we don't protect it, we will lose it."