How Hammett won back the Hurricanes fans
CHIEF RUGBY WRITER
If Mark Hammett had his way crowds would still pour on to New Zealand's rugby grounds at fulltime to pat their heroes on the back.
In fact, the Hurricanes coach says he would happily give up his salary and go back to pouring concrete if it meant preserving the game's link to the community.
It's that simple philosophy as much as scrums, lineouts or linebreaks, that Hammett believes has brought the feelgood factor back to a franchise that had largely lost its fan base.
"If there was a referendum on whether we go back to amateur or stay professional, even if it meant I was out of a job, I'd vote for amateur," the 40-year-old said this week as he looked back on the season.
"I just think it was so good. Socially it was great for our community and it's easy to lose touch. That's why I go on about the need to touch base with the clubs, the churches, the schools, or whatever, it's critical.
"Professionalism, without doing it on purpose has moved away from the community . . . our big job is to keep that connection."
It's not that the Hurricanes had not made an effort to engage and Hammett says he's not critical of those who have gone before him.
However, he wonders if those efforts had become individual rather than a collective effort.
"It's a difference in how you go to promotions and how you go into a community," he said. "I've had that as a rugby player myself, where I've thought ‘we are doing too much', but it's actually about the attitude you take into it.
"I've tried really hard to impress that on the team that it's really important. I still have people come up to me and say: ‘You came and saw me in hospital', or . . . ‘you're the reason my son went on and played rugby'. That's massive, it's really huge.
"As the leader of this group from the on-field side it's a responsibility. People will get sick of me saying it, but it's non-negotiable. If you are part of our culture you look after our community."
Hammett believes those efforts transfer to support in the stands and uses his own attendance of Pulse netball games this year as an example.
"I did a question and answer session with Robyn Broughton and the Pulse early in the year and got a chance to meet two of the players.
"Straight away there was a connection. So the next week I went to the game. When you become touchable it becomes more real.
"I'm not just going to support a team, I'm going to support an individual as well . . .
"The more you get out and touch your people verbally, or through doing something, it's so much better. You have to be touchable.
"That's one of my big dislikes, not being able to run out on the field after games. That's the perfect opportunity for the fans to get close, to give you a pat on the back."
And Hammett's been getting plenty since hooker Dane Coles' winning try against the Chiefs added one more memorable moment to a season that defied predictions.
Midweek, Dominion Post cartoonist Tom Scott depicted the Hurricanes' coach as God, and the tributes have been more akin to winning the Super Rugby title than finishing eighth.
Hammett's been a tad "embarrassed" by some of the reaction to a season that's defied the odds but missed the playoffs.
And the spotlight clearly sits a little uncomfortably for someone who believes staunchly in the mantra that no individual is greater than the team.
"I've been massively humbled. Even a wee bit embarrassed by that. I'm just one part of the group. I know I'm the leader of the group, but I'm only one," he said.
"I know how hard everyone else here has worked. Alama [Ieremia], Watty [Richard Watt], Jono [Phillips] with the skills, I could name everyone here because they've all worked really hard.
"I would rather have a picture with the whole team with halos around their heads because it's been a real team effort."
That said, Hammett can be forgiven if he's taking a moment to savour his personal situation.
Eight months ago he was public enemy No 1.
It started with a player exodus and quickly spread to a "Sack Mark Hammett" Facebook page, jibes in the street, glares from fans and negative media reports.
Most of that bounced off the former All Black hooker's shoulders, but not the toll his public flogging was taking on his wife Trish and their two daughters Billie and Nova.
"It was dark for my family, that was the worst part. I've been involved in a lot of ups and downs through the years, so perhaps I could handle it a wee bit better," he said.
"I was generally optimistic in terms of: ‘This will go away', but it did get pretty bad. The negative and positive part of my personality is that I'm super competitive and that I'm a bit pig-headed.
"No matter what happened I was never going to give it away, even through those dark moments where you think ‘maybe I should just get out'.
"If you jump now, you will never know . . . Imagine sitting in the rocking chair going: ‘Why didn't I just hang around and get through that?' All the pain and negativity and all that stuff, at least you would know.
"We could have got through this year and things didn't go well, but at least you would know. The answer, is yeah, I had that feeling, but over-riding it I was never not going to see things out."
So when did the worm start to turn?
It was around about the time his captain Conrad Smith was tearing onto an inside pass from first five-eighth Beauden Barrett at Eden Park on March 23.
As he sat in the changing room after the match Hammett's phone "went crazy" with texts of congratulations and he says the public's perception of the team gathered momentum from then on.
"After that there was a feeling and a sense of ‘these guys are giving it everything'.
"What's been overwhelming is the amount of people who have come up and said: ‘Look I was really anti you and I was against you', but they shook my hand and said ‘well done'.
"That's a real human quality to say: ‘I got it wrong'. That's been immense and there's been a lot of that. It's not so much I've changed anyone's mind, but people have changed their minds and supported the team.
"We saw that on the weekend [against the Chiefs]. I've had so many people say it was an amazing atmosphere. They voted with their feet didn't they?"
The challenge now is to keep the ball rolling. It's unlikely fans will be ushered on to Westpac Stadium after matches next season, or that rugby will revert to its amateur days.
But it's a fair bet the Hurricanes will continue the on and off-field efforts that made 2012 so enjoyable to watch.
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- © Fairfax NZ News
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