Forget Graham Henry and Robbie Deans, the coaching clash between Deans and Steve Hansen this Saturday has a way more interesting back story.
The first national rugby title Deans or Hansen won, they won together, in their first season as coach and assistant coach of the 1997 Canterbury team.
Deans had been under pressure not to pick "Shag" Hansen as his assistant, but to opt for former All Blacks coach Alex Wyllie, back in town after coaching overseas.
“Why would you,” asked one of many powerful lobbyists for Wyllie, “pick a guy [Hansen] who's never played in the forwards, and coached the backs at club level, when you could have one of the best forward coaches in the world?” But Deans stuck with Hansen and it worked immediately.
From outside the camp it was easy to see why Deans would command a changing shed. A team-mate once called him a forward trapped in a fullback's body, and as a coach he brought to the table an intensity reflected in a piercing gaze a mean-eyed header dog would be happy to borrow.
Hansen has always been a harder read, but results, and glowing appraisals from former players, show he's got huge coaching and man-management talent.
One crucial factor players appreciate is his humour, which in turn reflects an intelligence his bloke-ish persona can obscure. There was a rare public glimpse of that side of the man in a video at the current Henry tribute dinners.
On tape Hansen reckons Henry's finest world cup hour was when he found out Dan Carter's wrecked groin would end his campaign. Henry pulled the shocked team together and told Colin Slade everyone in the side would be making sure he could be his own man and play the rugby that would bring the cup home.
“It was the best and most important talk you ever gave the team Ted,” said Hansen, who then paused, and with timing and delivery Fred Dagg would have been proud of, drawled, “Mind you, it wasn't quite as effective when you had to do it two more times.”
At the Crusaders, the Deans-and-Hansen combination won the Super title in 2000. But it unravelled in 2001, a disastrous year for the Crusaders, who finished 10th.
A more astute person than myself would have picked up the dysfunction that year in a call Deans made to query why Hansen had been described as co-coach, not an assistant, in a local television interview I'd had with Hansen. It seemed so trifling at the time I never pursued the issue.
Years later an insider in the Deans camp told me Deans believed in 2001 that Hansen and Canterbury CEO Steve Tew were working to push him out.
Whether it was paranoia or not, by 2002 Tew had taken a job at the NZRU, Hansen was in Wales, working with Henry, and Deans ruled in Christchurch.
A decade later, watching two men whose careers started happily locked in tandem, facing each other down across one of the great rugby divides, is proof that sometimes in sport, as well as a potentially great game, you get a bonus of fascinating human drama.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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