Steve Hansen's hour of reckoning approaches
OPINION: Although born in Dunedin, Steve Hansen amassed his rugby knowledge in Canterbury. RICHARD KNOWLER offers an insight into the ex-Marist and Canterbury player and the All Blacks coach.
It rarely took long for opposition club backlines to realise Steve Hansen was plugging away in the green and white colours of Marist in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The figure wheeling about in the midfield possessed a less experienced rugby brain than the 2012 model, yet even then it was recognised rugby was a sport Hansen took most seriously.
Representing Canterbury 21 times between 1980 and 1987, Hansen was a major component of Marist's back division.
Wayne Burleigh, who usually started at first five-eighth whenever New Brighton tangled with Marist in that era, recalls the midfielder busily barking out instructions during their clashes.
"Steve, as a player, was a very good organiser – a good talker – and a very good defender," said Burleigh, who also played with Hansen for the Canterbury A and B teams.
"He was one of those people who read the game well and Marist had a lot of set moves. And Steve was a big boy for those days, too, back then when most players weren't much over 80kg."
Although he now carries the moniker "Shag", Hansen, who was around 92kg in his playing days, was marked as "Ox" by his Marist team-mates.
Former Marist halfback Steve Baker, who also linked with the big centre when he captained Canterbury B, said his old team-mate did not rant prior to a match.
"Steve was not the type to lose his head. He was like that on the field, too. Especially from a defensive perspective he provided that calming influence among the outside backs and that gave us all a lot of confidence."
Hansen's ability to relate to others in the rugby environment impressed Baker and he believes that has played a big part in the coach's success. "It all comes back to the way he manages people. That was his major strength."
Yet Hansen's playing career was not particularly memorable. He was to make his biggest impact off the field. After retiring he switched to coaching at the HSOB club in 1993, continuing his passion for a hobby that eventually led him out of the police force and into the world of professional sport.
Lucrative roles in Wales and the All Blacks have brought Hansen financial rewards but little of the kudos assigned to head coaches whenever their team wins. He was forced to bide his time when he returned to assist All Blacks boss Graham Henry in 2004.
Intoxicating highs and deflating lows have speckled his coaching career. After he joined Neville Duckmanton to guide HSOB, where a hatful of trophies were amassed over four years, he was promoted to be Vance Stewart's Canterbury assistant in 1996.
His career path threaded its way through Canterbury and the Crusaders, always as an assistant until 2001 when he and Aussie McLean guided them to the national title. Later that year Hansen exited for Wales to assist Henry and was anointed head coach when his old boss walked out a few months later.
Hansen's tenure was blotted by 11 consecutive defeats and the wooden spoon in the 2003 Six Nations. Yet former Welsh Rugby Union chief executive David Moffett hailed Hansen's contribution.
"He inherited a team that was going backwards under Graham Henry and that was why he [Henry] resigned," said Moffett, who was also in the midst of an unpopular restructuring of their domestic game.
"When Steve took the head job it was head down and bum up. He didn't get the results that the effort warranted but it was Steve who put the foundations in place for when they won the Six Nations under Mike Ruddock in 2005."
Insiders often state one of Hansen's strengths is his empathy with players. Rather than treat them as pawns to advance his career he takes a genuine interest in their personal circumstances.
Like his astute father, Des, who coached Marist, Steve has the knack to quickly analyse games from the sideline. He is intuitive and prepared to listen to those who offer innovative ideas.
His stubborn streak is offset by a dry sense of humour.
"If he is angry he doesn't hide it but he really knows how to find out what makes people tick," one source said. "I think senior players respect him because he appreciates them as people, not just as players."
Despite the gruff exterior Hansen, who has four children from two relationships, has a sensitive side and his ability to relate with his players is one of the reasons he is respected by the likes of Richie McCaw.
"There's no doubt he can be bullish but he can change his mind," noted another insider. "It's almost [as] if he wants to see if you will stand your ground."
Unlike Henry, who later in his career enjoyed interaction with the media, Hansen has not revelled in the task. He has in the past sought the counsel of public relations consultant Ian Fraser.
A win over Ireland tonight should ensure "Shag" steps out of his coach's box in bright spirits to face the spotlight.
Canterbury 1980-87 (21 caps)
HSOB club: 1993-96
Canterbury (assistant) 1996 – 2000
Canterbury (head coach 2001)
Crusaders (assistant) 1999-01
Wales (head coach): 2002-03
All Blacks (assistant): 2004 – 2011
All Blacks head coach 2012
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