OPINION: Steve Hansen's triumphal first year as All Blacks coach has ticked one box that must surprise even the men who appointed him.
At NZRU headquarters there was recognition that while "The Man Called Shag" had a terrific rapport with his players, the image he presented to the public via the media was too often rough edged, sometimes tipping into flat-out grumpy.
Rugby doesn't have an automatic hold on the affections of the nation anymore. And unlike the Republican party in America, rugby here has leaders smart enough to know just having old white guys in your pocket isn't enough to be successful.
The NZRU has pure public relations goodwill gold in Richie McCaw. But there were people in the Wellington bunker not so certain about Hansen.
The All Blacks would win on the field, and in the end that's the most important thing. Lose and the best PR skills are worthless. The most adept All Blacks coach with media relations was John Hart. But all his considerable charm, even having what amounted to an unofficial fan club president in Keith Quinn inside the media, couldn't prevent the deluge when results turned bad in 1998 and 1999.
But in a professional, commercial, competitive world the NZRU, reasonably, want more than just wins from an All Blacks coach, they want a spokesman, who, at best, polishes the All Blacks image, and, at worst, at least doesn't damage it.
So how would a bloke whose most famous quote had been "flush the dunny and move on" react when he occupied the hottest coaching seat in New Zealand sport?
Welcome to Hansen 2012, and let's applaud a man who appears to have swept old chips off his shoulder, and won hearts and minds with an approach combining two vital elements, being honest, and batting away loaded questions with humour. After the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies 22-0 at Eden Park in August, TV3's Jim Kayes asked Hansen a massively loaded question. How long did Hansen think Robbie Deans would last as an All Blacks coach with the record he had with Australia?
Hansen's reaction was disarming and perfect. He smiled, and said: "Jesus Jimmy, why don't you give me a rope and let me put it round my neck?"
There was never any likelihood, given the charged nature of any question about his former coaching partner Deans, of Hansen giving his opinion, but the sting of a thin-lipped, "how dare you ask me that question" sound bite playing in prime time was sidestepped. On the other hand, some issues past All Blacks coaches might have considered off limits, have been addressed by Hansen.
In the professional era I'm hard pressed to think of any All Blacks coach who's been so straight up and down about selections.
You might not always agree with him, but what an unalloyed pleasure to hear Hansen outline, as one example, why Piri Weepu and Ali Williams made the cut for this northern tour, or being so honest about how close the call was between Weepu and Aaron Smith for last night's test with Wales.
It took most of the eight years Graham Henry was coach for the fact to sink in that what his then assistant Hansen described as Henry's "upside down smile" actually hid a dry, but keen, sense of humour.
Once fans were aware of that wit, a lot of the Henry style, the occasional outrageous statement delivered with a tiny gleam in the eye, went from edgy to entertaining. But there's been no need to work through subtleties with Hansen in 2012.
He's shown a firm grasp on a fact often missed by coaches. The fleeting satisfaction of snarling at a pesky journalist doesn't outweigh the downside of having a scowling flat screen close up in the country's living rooms that night.
As obnoxious, irritating and ill-informed as a coach might believe members of the media pack are, they're by far the main conduit to the rugby public, and, like the weather and the poor, they're always with us.
You might as well, as Hansen has done so adroitly this year, learn to live with them, or, you might even say, flush and move on.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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