Q&A with the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen
After leading the All Blacks to the perfect season, Steve Hansen picked up back-to-back IRB coach of the year gongs last week. He sits down with Liam Napier to reflect and look forward.
Q. The European tour tested your squad in a number of close battles. When you build over the next two years towards the World Cup, do you think those experiences could be defining?
A. It's good for the team to work hard to win. It builds an inner belief and a realisation that we're not special enough to stop working hard. Both those ingredients are important. We're rapt with what we've achieved but we know we have to do more.
Q. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that your management team features a lot of yes-men. What are your thoughts on the team around you and what they contribute?
A. I'm not sure about the perception of yes-men. They're all very good at what they do. To be good they can't be yes-people. Ian [Foster] has had an outstanding year. He's got a good strategic mind. He's working hard with the backs to give us the strike to play off and he's developing into a very good international coach. Mick Byrne is probably the best skills coach in the world. He makes the complicated simple. Mike Cron has a special relationship with his forwards. Aussie [McLean] has a massive work ethic. He is a good analyst and has gone well in the defence. Nick Gill is the best trainer in the world and Gilbert Enoka has the mental side right. Darren Shand leads the non-rugby stuff and our medical team were great. Everyone pulls their weight.
Q. Which country is your greatest threat and why?
A. The Springboks only lost two games this year and they were to us. They were games that could have gone either way. The English are building nicely. The Aussies are getting their culture right and we know they've got plenty of talent. When you're playing these one-off tests, everyone is a threat. Teams get right up for the All Blacks. We can't take anyone for granted. When you look at the World Cup you've got to respect everyone. The next challenge is the English. It will be a really good benchmark to see where we are both at over three tests at home.
Q. This year you learned to manage your squad better. By the end of the year players were less fatigued than 2012, when they hit the wall. That was one key improvement. Where do you want to take this team forward next?
A. Managing player workload is an ongoing improvement, with the All Blacks and at Super Rugby. We'll look at what we can modify to be harder to defend against, where we can strengthen our defence, and what skills sets we can add to. That will come after some robust reviews.
Q. Depth set you apart this year. Wins in Johannesburg and Dublin showed the immense value of your bench. But positionally, would you like to grow the talent at hooker and centre?
A. We take an attitude it's a 23-man game. We've got some really good depth but the two areas you're talking about, with Andrew Hore retiring we'll have to find a third hooker. We'll use Super Rugby to do that. We don't have a lot of depth at centre. I'm happy with the way Ryan Crotty has come through. Francis [Saili] was good but still needs to grow and develop his game. It was very tough for Ben Smith after a massive season. We expected him to fall off just through fatigue, but he did enough for us to be encouraged. It gives us options from a bench point of view if Conrad Smith is available.
Q. I realise you're not into highlighting personal achievements, but after winning back-to-back coach of the year gongs, is this your most satisfying year as a head coach?
A. I get most satisfaction out of seeing people do things they couldn't before. Some of our athletes have done things they couldn't previously. That's satisfying. Winning is important. You can't get away from that. It keeps you employed for a start. It keeps the brand of the All Blacks high, which helps fund the game. When you reflect, there's something to be proud of. But as a group we're smart enough we're going to lose a game from time to time. We want to limit that. And you certainly don't want to lose one by being physically, mentally or strategically not prepared. That's pretty poor on our part. There's still massive amounts of things we can do better in our game. Yes, we will celebrate this year and, yes, we will have a few reflection moments, but there will be a full stop in 2014.
Q. Is there an element of a public/private face to what you do? Rather than throwing players under a bus you seem to protect them and critique in private?
A. Everyone has a different approach. My philosophy is you don't wash your dirty undies in the front part of the property; you do it out the back. It's between you and the player, you and the team. It's about building a trust. It's no different to being in a family. You love them but at times you don't like what they do, so you tell them. But you don't have to tell everyone.
Q. A strength of yours has been working out how to get the best out of individuals. It seems you have the balance right between understanding them and making the hard calls. How do you go about this?
A. It's being aware they are different and understanding that's okay. It's about giving them the time by watching them, hearing what they are saying rather than just listening, asking yourself why they are exhibiting this behaviour. You're striving to make sure the athlete has a sense of worth, a sense of trust. There's mutual belief. All of that builds a confidence within. That confidence allows expression from a talent point of view. If we can keep them confident and motivated that's a good recipe.
Q. Players react differently to different forms of feedback. What range of things do you do to try to push the right buttons?
A. Some you've got to hug, some you've got to kick, some you've got to do a bit of both. The most important thing is you've got to be aware they're all subtly different.
Q. Players are held accountable by you, but who keeps you honest? Do you have a relationship where the senior players can call you out on things as well?
A. I'd like to think we have a relationship where everyone keeps everyone accountable. If you have that then you have the right culture. There's an expectation that if I'm not doing what I said I would, I'd expect people to tell me, whether he's been there for one week or 124 tests. Everyone understands what it's about. The important thing is living it. If you live it from the top down every day, you'll be okay. If you allow the guys at the top to live differently from those at the bottom, you're going to have a problem.