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The man who knows the All Blacks and Wales better than anyone

02 Nov 2022 13 minute read
Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen (Credit: PA)

Simon Thomas

It’s a long barren run Steve Hansen first attempted to end and then set about extending.

So he is well placed to identify just what it would take for Wales to claim their first victory over New Zealand since 1953.

The man from Christchurch coached the Welsh national team against his homeland three times, back in 2002 and 2003.

On two of those occasions, hopes of history-making were raised as leads were established, only for the All Blacks to ultimately come out on top.

Then, from 2004 to 2019, he was on the other side of the fence with New Zealand, first as assistant to Graham Henry and then head coach, recording no fewer than 15 victories over Wales in that time.

Now he watches on, having stepped down three years ago after double World Cup glory, in 2011 and 2015.

So, as the two rugby-loving countries he coached prepare to lock horns in Cardiff next weekend, what does Hansen feel is the key to ending 69 years of hurt?

“New Zealand would probably be favourites going into the game, but the biggest problem Wales have is they have got to believe they can win it,” he said.

“We saw that with Ireland over the summer. The Irish got across the line and they have done it quite a bit now, because they believe they can and they know they can.

“Wales have got to get that same mindset. None of it comes down to the coach. I guess he creates the environment, but it’s got to come down to the people that are on the park, under the pressure and in the moment, and what their mental skills are like.

“It’s all about your mind. You have to block out the past and just be in the present. You can’t be distracted. You just have got to stay where your feet are and go ‘This is what I have got to do in this moment’.

“Stay in the game, don’t let yourself wander to thinking ‘Oh, here we go again, they are going to beat us’. Rugby has always been a game of strong characters.”

Wales coach Wayne Pivac. WRU handout

Another Kiwi is now at the helm of Wales in Wayne Pivac, so how does Hansen feel they are shaping up under his countryman.

“I think they are starting to find their way again. They have changed a couple of things and it has taken a while for that to happen,” he said.

“But you don’t beat South Africa in South Africa without playing well, it doesn’t matter who you are. So they are going to be dangerous.”

One man who could have an important role to play in next Saturday’s game – fitness pending – is former Chiefs star Gareth Anscombe who moved from New Zealand to Cardiff, where his mother was born, in 2014.

“He is a good player,” said Hansen. “He has got better and better as he has got older. He has matured into it, he is a competitor.

“He will get up for that challenge if he’s involved in the game. When you play your home country, it’s like playing your brother, you want to play really well.”

It was 20 years ago, almost to the week, that Hansen first found himself going up against his home country. Having initially come on board from the Crusaders as Graham Henry’s assistant, he was thrust into the hot seat when Henry stepped down in February 2002. Come the November of that year and the All Blacks arrived in town.

“It was quite an emotional day, coaching against your own country,” he recalls.

“You are a proud New Zealander but, at the same time, you are very proud to have the job as the Wales coach. So there were mixed emotions. They take you all over the place. You want to beat them, yet you are very proud of them.

“You decide to sing both national anthems and you are just proud to be part of the whole occasion.”

Steve Hansen when he was appointed Wales coach (Credit: WRU)

Wales were 10-3 up at one point in the first half and there was just one score in it at 80 minutes, before New Zealand pulled clear in stoppage time.

“We were working really hard at that stage to try and change things around. As we know, it took a wee while, but we got there,” said Hansen.

Proof that Wales were indeed getting there came a year later during a memorable World Cup group match in Sydney. It had been a torrid build-up to the tournament amid a lengthy losing run which had included a 55-3 thumping at the hands of New Zealand in Hamilton.

In fact, Hansen was just one more defeat away from losing his job, but victory over Scotland in a warm-up match saw him avoid the axe and then, at the World Cup, you started to see the fruition of all the work he had been doing.

Given no chance whatsoever against the All Blacks, his unfancied young team threatened to pull off one of the biggest upsets of all time as they built a 37-33 lead, playing a thrilling brand of rugby.

History beckoned. In the end, it wasn’t to be, as the Justin Marshall-inspired Kiwis claimed the spoils in the final quarter. Looking back, does Hansen sometimes still think that was a match Wales could have won?

“I do! There were two games at that World Cup we could have won, that one and the English one in the quarter-finals, but we didn’t quite have the belief that was needed to do that,” he replies.

“But what we did have was the beginning of some belief and that stood us in good stead going forward.”

Attitude

Having coached both Wales and New Zealand, Hansen knows all about public pressure, so one wonders what he makes of the heat current All Blacks coach Ian Foster has come under this year?

It’s been a real up and down 2022 for Foster’s team. They suffered a first ever series defeat to Ireland on home soil, then a first loss at home to Argentina, while also being beaten by South Africa in Nelspruit, only to end up winning the Rugby Championship.

Now they have arrived in Wales on the back of being given a real scare by Japan out in Tokyo, ahead of pulling through 38-31 following the sending off of try scorer Brodie Retallick.

So just what is the mood music among the rugby-mad public back in New Zealand?

“I think it’s varied,” says Hansen. “There was a lot of disappointment after the Irish series, from the players, the management and the fans.

“However, there have been some changes made and they have created quite a lot of positivity. There are always going to be some people that are anti-Foz because they are very pro Scott Robertson. You can’t change that.

“But I think the team has made some massive strides and it’s quite exciting where they are going.”

Hansen continued: “The big thing they are trying to work on is to get that physicality and control up front that allows them to play with a bit more freedom in the backs. When they get that, they look very, very dangerous.

“I think Jason Ryan has done a superb job in improving that forward pack. They are starting to build a bit of attitude up there.

“They will know full well that the northern hemisphere teams think they are weak there. So I guess it will be a case of ‘If you want to get physical with us, that’s fine, we are happy to do that. If you want to play footy, we’ll play footy’, so to speak.

“As you know they can certainly all play. They have got some special talents right across the park.

“Someone like Jordie Barrett – the unsung hero of the three brothers – he can play anywhere. He showed his class when he played second-five (inside centre) the other day. I think he is going to be a force to reckon with if they play him there. People will come to appreciate just how good he is.”

As for other players Welsh fans should watch out for, Hansen has a special word for Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho.

“He is outstanding. He is a good ball carrier, but good at his set-piece too and that’s really important.

“They have also got two quality men at fly-half (Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett). Most teams would be happy to have either one of them, wouldn’t they?”

Wales’ Johnny McNicholl is tackled by New Zealand’s Brad Weber in last season’s Autumn International meeting. Picture by David Davies. PA Wire/PA Images.

After taking on Wales in Cardiff, New Zealand then face further Tests on tour against Scotland and England. Despite the wobbles this year, is the expectation back home that they will win the lot?

“Yeah, that’s one thing that never changes and you don’t want it to change because if the external pressure is that high then the internal pressure has to be the same oR even higher. You have just got to walk towards it and enjoy the whole experience of it.”

Hansen remains a keen observer of rugby trends, so how does he assess the state of the game at present? His opinions are as forthright as ever.

“I think defence is still on top and will be until such time as they get really tough on the breakdown,” he said.

“Too many people are allowed to go off their feet and kill ball and slow ball down. That in itself creates a lot of problems that the game doesn’t need. I think if we got really staunch on that breakdown area, with people having to stay on their feet, we would get a better game. But I would say it’s going to require a couple of matches where there are lots of penalties until people adjust themselves.

“If there are a lot of penalties in a game, everybody moans. You can’t have it both ways but we do need to change the direction of the breakdown, I think.”

After all those years at the sharp end of the game, does his passion for the sport remain undiminished?

“You are a rugby person for life, aren’t you? You can’t just turn it off,” he replies.

“You enjoy some of it, but I get a bit frustrated with all the TMO involvement and I don’t think we are doing the right thing with the red cards. I believe we are just papering over the cracks.

“Red cards for accidental foul play is not the answer, in my opinion. I know we have to be seen to be doing something, but I would rather see us spending a lot of time and effort and money in improving people’s tackle techniques, improving people’s anticipation of what’s going to happen before it happens so they can get themselves in a position to be able to do the right thing, rather than get caught off balance and make high shots or do things that are not intentional because they just don’t have the skill set to be able to do what they are being asked to do. For me, that is a better answer.

“Red cards spoil the contest. Look, I have no problem with a red card for something that is totally deliberate, a punch, a kick or a stomp or something like that.

“If someone goes in deliberately to hurt somebody, just ban that person for life and they will never do it again, it will never happen again. That’s not our game, our game has got more character than that about it.

“But if there’s something that’s an accident, I don’t think we have got it right.

“I know we need to really work hard on the area around the head, I fully support that. But I just think we have got to spend more time and energy on improving people’s techniques in the tackle and improve their anticipation before the tackle, so they can read the play and put themselves in better positions, particularly our big men.

“We always find reasons not to do things rather than reasons to do them. We have got to ask ourselves are we actually fixing the problem and I would think not when we are still getting so many red cards in so many games, whether it’s league matches, Super Rugby or internationals.

“I just emphasise I think it’s a lack of tackle technique and a lack of understanding and anticipating what’s going to happen in those moments where big people get caught off balance. We are not spending the time to teach our young kids nor are we teaching our older ones.”

Steve Hansen being interviewed after his final game as All Blacks coach at the 2019 World Cup

Now 63, Hansen is still working on the coaching front as director of rugby for Japanese club Toyota Verblitz and will be heading back up there in mid November.

So how different a coach is Steve Hansen today to the one we first encountered in Wales some 20 years ago?

“I would like to think he is a lot better! The reality is I got that Welsh job before I was ready to do it, but you don’t turn your back on a team that needs help,” he says.

“We all learned as we went. I tried to do my best to shield the players from all the pressure that was going on. We had a certain belief in what we needed to do, it just took time to do it.

“We tried to build something that was going to last, that wasn’t just going to be a two minute fix.

“A lot of people didn’t have the patience, but eventually I think we were proven right.”

Speaking of patience, now it’s over to Wales v New Zealand and that long, long wait for a Welsh win which Hansen has witnessed from both camps.


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WilliamsG
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