Steve Hansen inherited a supposedly poisoned chalice.
After a lengthy eight-year apprenticeship, year one of his initial two-year term in the All Blacks' head coach hot seat was a lose-lose situation.
There was nothing to gain, or so it was perceived.
On the back of the 24-year drought-breaking World Cup triumph, many expected him to flop. Performances would sharply decline.
Somehow, without Wayne Smith, Hansen had to take over from Sir Graham Henry and inspire a squad that would suffer motivational staleness after achieving the ultimate rugby feat.
Many predecessors had been cursed by the Webb-Ellis Cup hangover. It was a medical condition, some suggested.
Further challenges awaited. The ageing All Blacks squad had to be gradually moved into retirement. Fresh blood was needed to reinvigorate. All the while enormous expectations of the rightfully unforgiving rugby public remained steadfast.
The irony is had the All Blacks failed to win the World Cup at home, common paranoia would have resurfaced. This year would have been all about planning four years in advance. Anguish would have demanded those unrealistic objectives.
Instead, with the pressure valve released, Hansen has been allowed space to live in the now; supporters are more accepting, and his side has benefited from that rare, rational approach.
With the additions of hooker Dane Coles and halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, nine new players have been gently blended into the black jersey this year. That's no mean feat. The new up-tempo style has been impossible to match.
Hansen's transition to the top job has been surprisingly seamless.
It's difficult to see Scotland, Italy or England changing that on the European tour. Only Warren Gatland's Welsh seem capable of a realistic upset. Even that would be a major shock.
The Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship have been locked away in this nine-win, one-draw season.
Failing against the second-string Wallabies, and near-defeat to Ireland in Christchurch, were the aberrations.
Yes, the ugly 18-all stalemate in Brisbane was widely considered a loss. Fair enough, too. A week of distractions, including Keven Mealamu's century test, the death of Hansen's father, Des, and the prospect of achieving the world record number of wins, caused the All Blacks to stray from their usual succinct processes. They were too emotional and didn't turn up mentally, but will have learnt from that experience.
Continuity has been a central factor in their continued success this year.
Set-piece guru Mike Cron, trainer Nick Gill, skills coach Mick Byrne, manger Darren Shand, and doctor Deb Robinson, have all been vital, familiar voices for the core senior players who drive team standards.
But first impressions of Hansen's handpicked management team were rather unflattering.
After eight unconvincing years with the Chiefs, Ian Foster's promotion irked many.
The former first five-eighth has quickly stamped his mark on the All Blacks' superb back-line play and the understated Aussie McLean presided over the best defensive record in the Rugby Championship. Grant Fox has also played a key selection role behind the scenes.
Hansen shares a similar close relationship with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, but his man-management skills differ from Henry's.
Those close to the All Blacks reveal the Cantabrian coach has good rapport with players and is slightly more laid-back than Henry, which will be important to control off-field frustrations in the battle for game-time on this month's tour.
Hansen is economical in his feedback. His dry sense of humour strikes a chord with players, but he is also capable of taking a backward step to crack the whip when necessary.
The winning record may be over, but after last year's memorable success, little more could be asked from Hansen and co thus far.
Conquering the northern hemisphere is their chance to add the exclamation mark.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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