A successful - at times trying - year for Hansen

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012
Steve Hansen
Getty
STEVE HANSEN: Has completely turned around his approach to the media in his first year as All Blacks head coach.

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Steve Hansen pauses when asked what he's got planned for his trophies.

Acclaimed by the International Rugby Board and New Zealand Rugby Union for the successes during his first year as All Blacks head coach, Hansen has been lumbered with some extra ornaments to adorn the shelves of his Prebbleton home.

Or maybe they won't make it that far.

Although confident he won't be constructing a cabinet to showcase the silverware, Hansen is less certain about just where they will eventually be housed.

"I don't have a trophy cabinet, no," he says. "They will probably collect some dust somewhere or I will give them to someone."

It's the sort of candid comment New Zealand rugby supporters have become accustomed to hearing since Hansen took charge of the All Blacks this year.

But it hadn't always been this way.

Apart from those who knew him well, Hansen's personality remained bottled inside his burly frame when he was the All Blacks assistant coach between 2004-11; although friends emphasised his dry humour ensured he was good company in private, his public image was hardly encouraging.

Unlike former head coach Graham Henry, who seemed to enjoy fronting the media and - depending on his mood - could provide some entertainment in front of the microphones, his forwards coach Hansen looked awkward and disinterested.

So when he was predictably appointed as Henry's successor there were concerns Hansen was on a hiding to nothing.

Not only did history show that triumphant World Cup teams usually struggled the following season, Hansen inserted Ian Foster as his backs coach and Aussie McLean as his defensive general.

Their records were hardly overwhelming; in eight years of coaching the Chiefs Foster never won a title, while McLean had never been a Super Rugby head coach.

Yet Hansen surprised everyone.

The All Blacks ended the season with a 12-1-1 record and in doing so won the Rugby Championship and retained the Bledisloe Cup. Hansen's coaching awards were the cherries on top.

Then there was the way he defied predictions he would be a public relations disaster.

Although it was common knowledge Hansen had been receiving guidance from high-profile PR operators such as Ian Fraser (CRRCT), it seemed preposterous to expect too much from the fellow nick-named "Shag".

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To the confusion of his most ardent critics, Hansen proved his doubters wrong; even New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said he wished Hansen had executed his transformation much earlier.

Fears he would blunder in front of the TV cameras, scowl down the barrel and utter mono-syllabic answers quickly evaporated.

So how did this happen?

Hansen says he decided to just get on with it.

"A lot people obviously didn't expect me to handle the media the way I have," he says. "There were a lot of question marks, I guess, and I think we have answered quite a lot of those. I am actually quite proud of that, quite pleased with it.

"I think it is an attitude shift. When you are the assistant you have got a different role and I was probably a bit over-protective of people. But as the head coach you lead with the media and it allows you take it in a direction you want to take it in."

It would be neglectful not to note that the All Blacks' successes have guaranteed a temperate response from his critics; apart from the 18-all draw with the Wallabies in Brisbane in October and the shock 38-21 defeat to England in London earlier this month, the arrows and swords have remained sheathed.

As Tew noted earlier this week, the way Hansen reacts if the team's performances are down-graded and demand forensic inspection is yet to be seen.

However, one thing is certain: Hansen hasn't lost his prickly streak.

He can still spit fire if he believes his players' input is sloppy at training and if he senses an opportunity to deliver a verbal slap to the chops of his old Canterbury and Crusaders coaching partner Robbie Deans he jumps right in.

The most recent comments to be aired, during the Sky TV documentary Weight of a Nation, were Hansen at his pugnacious best.

Believing Deans' decision to apply for the All Blacks head coaching job in late 2007 was little more than window dressing - because he had already signed with the Australian Rugby Union - Hansen flipped another grenade in his arch-rival's direction.

"I think he just went through the motions and wanted to be the martyr if he didn't get it, so he wins on both sides of the table. That's how I felt about it because you don't go to a [New Zealand Rugby Union] selection meeting and when asked, 'Who are going to be your running mates?' - knowing that the opposition [Sir Graham Henry] has got two pretty good candidates [Hansen and Wayne Smith] behind him - with a wishy washy answer. He did.

"And that's why he lost the job, from my understanding. So, did he really want the job?"

Given his side's poor run of results against the All Blacks, Deans has little choice but to absorb the criticism and lie in wait. The feud promises to provide more entertainment ahead of next year's trans-Tasman tests.

In the days leading to the the 18-all draw against Australia on October 20, Hansen's mind must have been miles away from rugby.

The death of his father Des - who had been seriously ill following a stroke - meant he didn't just lose a parent. He also lost a mate and someone also shared a deep love for rugby.

But there was never any chance of Hansen missing the test at Suncorp Stadium.

As he prepared to fly to Brisbane two days before the game, he emphasised his father would have wanted him to do his work with the All Blacks.

"We talked about lots of things involving rugby - people, coaches and players," Hansen reflected. "He was a wise man who understood the game particularly well. He was a good bouncing board."

When the news of Des' illness was reported around the world, Hansen said it was easier for him to deal with than his family.

"Anyone who loses a parent understands it is tough, and in my case, my job was quite a public one. So losing my father became quite public.

"That was probably tougher for everybody else in the family because having been in the public eye for quite a while, you sort of become quite used to it.

"But they don't and we had to help a few people through that. We miss him incredibly and over the next 12 months there will be a lot of hurt. It will be the first time he is not there for Christmas, the first time he is not there for birthdays."

Hansen will also be without his most trusted soldier, captain Richie McCaw, during next year's three-test series against France.

With McCaw on leave from all rugby until early July, Hansen is expected to anoint Kieran Read as skipper and award Sam Cane the No 7 jersey.

McCaw, however, is not expected to disappear completely. Not from Hansen, anyway.

"From time to time we will catch-up when it is convenient for him (McCaw). I should imagine, knowing him the way I do, he will want to have a little input into what we are doing, how things are going.

"I expect to get the odd phone call, but really it is about him getting a good mental break from the game. We won't be putting any pressure on him at all."

Although there was plenty to like about the All Blacks performances in 2012 - especially the way Hansen encouraged Foster to urge his backs to exploit space and question opponents by running straight and hard - it will be foolhardy to believe there may not be glitches next year.

While newcomers such as Julian Savea, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett, Luke Romano, Charlie Faumuina and Cane proved worthy selections, Hansen will also be conscious of the growing injury toll among his senior players.

Dan Carter has already been tagged as a "red flag" player - someone whose ageing body needs to be monitored - and front rowers Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock and loosies Read and McCaw continue to make regular trips to the medical staff's offices.

Between now and February, Hansen says rugby will remain a low priority.

He wants to spend time with his partner, mingle with his kids and enjoy the sunshine.

"January is all about family time. They have made a lot of sacrifices during the year and it's just a really good opportunity to be present for them and to give something back to them - a lot of love and a lot of support."

One task remains incomplete.

Hansen has yet to watch footage of the England loss and says he may get around to it next week.

That blotch on his record, he says, still rankles. And the maddening thing for him is the All Blacks have to wait until the June series against France to jump back into action.

"Everybody involved in the All Blacks is very competitive and doesn't like losing. It's an annoying performance on the scorecard, one that we are not that proud of. When it's your last game of the season you have to wait a long time to fix the problem.

"It's like having an itch that always need to be scratched."

- The Press

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