WELLINGTON, May 29 (Reuters) - Steve Hansen’s ability to engender loyalty while cracking the whip with one hand and offering a consoling pat on the back with the other has helped the All Blacks attain unprecedented success under the former policeman.
New Zealand became the first team to clinch successive World Cup titles with victories in 2011 and 2015 and have won 62 of 68 tests during Hansen’s five years in charge.
Defeats under Hansen have been few and far between with only England, South Africa, Australia and Ireland enjoying the rarest of victories, while the Wallabies also managed two draws.
The British and Irish Lions tour, however, looms as arguably the biggest test of his coaching career with the world champions.
Originally, hosting the Lions was supposed to have been the 58-year-old Hansen’s swan song.
After 13 years with the team, the former Canterbury midfield back reasoned the players would need some fresh ideas to take them through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The players, however, wanted him to stay on, and support from the likes of captain Kieran Read was one factor that convinced him to renew his contract for another two years.
“Having got the feedback from management and the players that they wanted me to continue ... it was a no-brainer,” Hansen said when he re-signed last year.
“There is a challenge to go through to 2019 and go for three in a row ... and it’s a real challenge for this team and one they want to get up for.”
Challenging his players to take their game to a new level has been a hallmark of Hansen’s style since he succeeded Graham Henry after the victory over France in the 2011 World Cup final.
Hansen has never hesitated to crack the whip by dropping players failing to meet his standards, while in public he has put a supportive arm around those being criticised.
Hansen said he learned the approach from his father, Des.
“Dad always had some words of wisdom in his messages for everyone if you were prepared to listen,” Hansen told Fairfax Media last year.
“He just had a way where he understood people and knew what to say no matter what the circumstances were.”
Finding the right thing to say, at least publicly, did not always come easy for Hansen.
As an assistant under Henry, he had a prickly relationship with the media but those issues were smoothed over with a public relations-inspired makeover in 2010 and his dry wit has been to the fore since.
During the last World Cup, he conceded that the All Blacks had been playing within themselves during the pool phase and was asked what he might have up his sleeve for the knockout stage.
“Just my arm,” was the deadpan reply.
The 2015 success was built on Hansen’s strategic planning, his ability to convince veterans to stay on for the challenge of another four-year cycle as well as his keen eye for new talent.
In his first year in charge he introduced players like Aaron Smith, Dane Coles, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett to the team and revived Ben Smith’s stalled test career.
Retallick and Barrett have both since been named World Player of the Year, Coles has revolutionised the role of hooker, while Savea, Cane and the Smiths are among the best in the world at their positions.
Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Anton Lienert-Brown, Scott Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane were all introduced last year and are tipped for lengthy test careers.
Hansen’s philosophy for the Lions tour remains consistent with the expectations he has held his players to since taking the helm.
“The attitude of every All Black team is to get better,” he told London’s The Daily Telegraph.
“I‘m not satisfied, the management is not satisfied and the players are not satisfied with where we are at.”
The challenge has been set. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)