AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As Steve Hansen prepares the All Blacks for their winner-takes-all clash against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday, he will be looking for signs in his players. He will be analysing body language, listening to things said, but searching for indications of those thoughts suppressed.
It’s an approach he learned from horses. As he sat in Auckland discussing his coaching career — he is a masterful talker, engaging and commanding, yet one of the topics he least likes talking about is himself — he reflected on one trip he took in his earlier days where a group of coaches were taken to visit horses to learn about individual management.
“Horses are a great animal to teach you lessons, because they can’t speak, obviously,” Hansen says. “But they can give you non-speaking signals. We carry them all the time, as human beings, but we don’t see them because we’re either too busy talking ourselves and not listening, or looking.
“With our horses, they’ve got their own problems, their own fears and insecurities just like people. Some horses you can push around and get what you want just by sheer force, but some horses won’t like that and react in a bad way — you don’t want your horse rearing up. So how am I going to deal to that horse? I’m going to have to deal with it in a different way, I’m going to have to look for the cues. People are the same.”
On the first day, Hansen was given a horse which reflected his own personality. “I could do what I wanted with him as he was a big old softie.” But on the second day, he was given a filly who was “really flighty”.
“I don’t know what had happened to her in a previous life but the challenge was we had to get her up on to three steps and get her to stand on top of the podium,” Hansen says. “It took me two and a half hours to get her the confidence to get her there and I couldn’t push her so I had to be patient and patience is not one of my virtues.
“Stubborn, yes but patience probably not. So it was great for me because I had to be patient and eventually we got there, one step at a time we got there.”
It was a lesson he has brought into his coaching philosophy. “If you make a horse feel like you care about it, then the horse responds. If you push a horse that doesn’t want to be pushed, it’ll bite you or kick you and that can hurt so you learn quickly you don’t want to do that.” He stops short of comparing All Blacks to horses, but the parallels are there between when the right time to use the stick is, and when it’s best to put an arm around the shoulder.
That horse episode is only one tiny part of Hansen’s coaching make up. There are the lessons he gleaned from his father on why the opposition gives the attacker all the options. Then there are his experiences from his days in the police which gave him perspective on life, that losing a match is nowhere near the heartache of losing a loved one, and how despite rugby being king in this part of the world, it is sport at the end of the day.
It is a varied perspective on life but his journey from Canterbury to Wales to Sir Graham Henry’s assistant and now as the man in charge of the All Blacks means he has a brilliant wide-ranging, informed view of rugby’s landscape.
One of the All Blacks’ key mantras is how they are mere custodians of the shirt; their mission is to leave it in a better place for the next generation of world-beaters. Hansen sees that as an overarching theme for the sport; they have a duty to improve the game for those who follow.
But he does have fears. He worries about how rugby is potentially following football’s example in the northern hemisphere, and has noted how the club game has become vastly more important and appealing than internationals.
It is a cautionary tale that he feels rugby must heed. “What’s happened in football is that the international game has been eroded and it’s all about European Cups and World Cups,” Hansen says. “Is that what we want in rugby? Right before our very eyes it’s happening.
“Wouldn’t it be a travesty if the international game was lost, like football. Who wants friendlies? No such thing as friendlies in rugby. That’s all you get in football. England playing Wales in a friendly. Imagine that in rugby? That’s where we could end up if we don’t take some ownership as rugby people.”
The conversation is revolving around the question over how the Lions fit into modern rugby. Hansen is a staunch supporter of the team, he loves what they stand for, but as the club versus country battle continues to rage with details of the new global calendar for post-2019 still slightly ambiguous, he fears the increasing power of clubs in the northern hemisphere could harm the future.
“The owners up there, they’ve got their own agenda,” Hansen says. “And it’s around money. And money makes us make funny decisions sometimes, and those decisions aren’t always right for rugby. They might be right for the individual, but they’re not right for the game.
“To even think that we shouldn’t have Lions tours, the people who are saying that, it’s because they want the players. They’re not saying it because it’s not right for the game, they’re saying it because it’s not right for their team, their ownership of their group of people, they don’t want them to go and do that.
“The Lions are right for the game. I have no doubt in my mind about that. If we were able to come together, owners and unions, and make decisions solely on what was right for the game we would create a global window where everyone can have their piece of the pie but people don’t want to give things up.
“Then you have got the north-south thing, the perception of ‘they are only doing this because it will benefit them’. I have always found that rubbish.
“I know that when I sat up in the north and they would say, ‘we can’t have them [southern hemisphere] do that because it would be good for them’. I would think, ‘That is not actually right, guys’. Then I sit down here and you might hear the same and you are, ‘Well that’s not right either’. If we could get rid of all the cynicism and just say ‘What is right for the game?’ and base it on that.”
Hansen is also concerned about the current format of refereeing. He feels the system of using Test officials as assistant referees means they aren’t always used to policing certain aspects of the game from the sideline. This leads to frustration, and the image of the game is tainted further.
He has a genuine, deep love for rugby and when he talks about it, you believe him. “You know, rugby is bigger than any of us. It has to last longer than us, so we’ve got a responsibility to that first and foremost,” Hansen says, but that’s not to say he doesn’t care immensely about the All Blacks and Saturday’s result.
He is aware that there are those who would love to see the Lions win on Saturday; a series triumph for the tourists would raise the question of whether the All Blacks are suffering a dip in form.
Hansen highlights the players they have missing, not by means of excuse but mere fact, yet he sees the positives in the situation. The absence of Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith mean others have to step into their shoes and “adapt and adjust”, as he puts it.
Those experiences will be carried forward, and depth created in their arsenal which was why they managed to maintain their world-beating standards after they lost six experienced players after the 2015 World Cup.
The continuity is the same with his coaching group. “We’ve set up a concept we have called a sweet-spot, so it’s not just Steve Hansen making all the decisions,” Hansen says. “It’s actually a group of people. So you’re trying to protect, if you get a personality that’s more about themselves than the team then you’ve got safeguards to take that away, if you have someone saying ‘I’m going to make this decision that’s good for me and bugger the team’. So that’s in place.”
There’s no grey area with Hansen, he says it how it is.
You imagine that’s also how he talks to his players. With some he will give them a rocket, with others the arm around their shoulder. That’s all part of their varied and continuing story of success. Rugby is bigger than anyone, even bigger than the best coach in the world, but that doesn’t mean losing is acceptable.
As he put it last week, “it sucks”, and he won’t want that feeling again on Saturday when they face the Lions at Eden Park.
“This one’s got the added bonus of being 1-1. The whole world of rugby is pretty excited about that. They’re thinking, “Right, here we go, we’re going to knock the All Blacks off their perch”. If that does happen, there’ll be a hell of a lot of people excited about that because they’ve got sick of us winning.
“That’s the reality, whether we like it or not.
“We don’t want that to happen, because we like winning, but that’s the added spice to what’s already a special thing.”