Media tactics and strategic baiting: inside the mind of ex-All Blacks coach Steve Hansen | New Zealand rugby union team

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If it were possible to measure confidence on a device with a scale, Hansen’s numbers would have been off the charts in the week of the final. He wasn’t complacent, or arrogant – he simply knew that his side had the measure of the Wallabies in every way.

He respected them, knew the dangers they posed and was aware that Australia had emerged through the so-called pool of death and were in great form, battle hardened and a different team to the one they had been a few months earlier at Eden Park when the All Blacks thumped them. Still, they left none of the residual doubt in Hansen the way the semi-final fixture against the Springboks had. Since Hansen had been elevated to the top job, the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies eight times, drawn twice and lost once.

A big part of his role that week was trying to keep the team shielded from distractions. That meant not putting into the public domain anything the Wallabies, especially their coach Michael Cheika, could feed off in the buildup to the final. Hansen didn’t want the media to have cheap, inflammatory headlines they could twist to provoke tension between the two teams and further enhance the sense of grievance the Wallabies appeared to be carrying.

Hansen, throughout his tenure, had used the media to niggle the various Australian coaches he’d encountered. He made his famous “loaded gun” remark about Robbie Deans. In 2013 and 2014 he frequently baited Deans’ replacement Ewen McKenzie – accurately predicting what selections he would make, then offering him some advice about why they were maybe not the right ones. These sorts of remarks were not off the cuff. Hansen was entirely strategic in the way he occasionally baited a rival coach.

He didn’t do it for the sake of creating drama or a bit of theatre. He did it, ultimately, because he had determined it would be of benefit to the team. And to reach the conclusion that it was best for the team, he had to weigh up factors such as his confidence in winning any verbal exchange. He didn’t ever pick a fight he didn’t think he’d win.

In the case of McKenzie, somehow Hansen knew through his incredible network of informants that tension was rising in the Wallabies over the coach’s inability to settle on a No 10. Hansen also felt that McKenzie, despite fancying himself as a sharp media operator, was no intellectual giant and not in possession of the sort of sharp wit and calculating mind that could hold his own in a verbal sparring contest. Hansen felt he could dominate McKenzie in the media and hurt his confidence by doing so.

But Cheika, who took over the Wallabies in November 2014, a job he held co-jointly with his head coaching role at the Waratahs until the end of Super Rugby in 2015, was a different story. Cheika, in Hansen’s view, was dangerously volatile. The Australian had a reputation for being abrasive. He was unpredictable and hot-headed, as demonstrated earlier in 2015 when coaching the Waratahs in Super Rugby.

At half-time during a match against the Blues in Sydney, Cheika had stormed into the referee’s room to make some suggestions about where he was going wrong. It was a clear infringement of the rules but what made it more reckless was that Cheika did this at a time when he was under a six-month suspended suspension for kicking a cameraman. Somehow Cheika escaped being banned, but Hansen was amazed that a coach of such standing and experience would risk so much just to berate a referee in a Super Rugby game.

Hansen, then, couldn’t be sure of the value in trying to get under Cheika’s skin in the week of the final. He didn’t know how the Australian would react and more importantly, Hansen sensed that Cheika liked the idea of getting into a verbal scrap and would relish it. Cheika was eager to portray his team as the underdog and was fostering a siege mentality. He would have twisted anything Hansen said and used it to further convince his players the world was against them. The Wallabies had harnessed that sense of grievance all tournament to great effect and Cheika’s modus operandi was to use that energy to instil controlled anger and a greater alignment of purpose between players and coach.

That calmness and focus was taken on to the field by the All Blacks and they went about patiently, but quite ruthlessly, dismantling the Wallabies in the first half, before Nonu went on to blast 50m to score and push the All Blacks to a 21–3 lead. Hansen felt that come the final quarter, the floodgates would open. The game did turn in the final quarter, but not in the direction everyone had been expecting.

Ben Smith was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle after 58 minutes and the Wallabies scored two tries to close things up at 21–17. Still, even though the Wallabies scored two tries while Smith was off the field and closed the gap to just four points, there was never any sense of panic in Hansen. He knew that McCaw was at the zenith of his powers and would calmly, with 15 men again on the field, bring everyone back to the task at hand. He knew that the set-piece was dominating, that the All Blacks were in control of the breakdown and when Carter landed a 40m drop goal after 69 minutes to restore the lead to seven and Hansen’s face came up on the big screen as the ball sailed through the posts, and the world was looking at a coach who knew his team had won.

Steve Hansen: The Legacy by New Zealand Herald rugby columnist Gregor Paul
Steve Hansen: The Legacy by New Zealand Herald rugby columnist Gregor Paul Photograph: Supplied

“The World Cup in 2015 was a tournament that went the way we planned it to go and I think the outcome was pretty special for rugby because I don’t think too many tournaments had been won by a lot of points being scored by either team,” he said.

“And that final game was a pretty good game of footy. Australia wanted to play and we wanted to play and so you got a good game and it was an accumulation of each week being done right and to win World Cups that is what has to happen, but it was a really enjoyable tournament. The 2011 one was tough because we just had to win it and it was all done when it was finished. But this one was enjoyable all the way through. Dad didn’t have the opportunity to say to me ‘go and win the World Cup in 2015.’ He would just have expected it. I didn’t have that wee moment straight after the final which I did in 2011 thinking about Mum. When I reflected on it later I might have said to [my wife] Tash, ‘It would have been good if the old boy had been here.’”

This is an edited extract from Steve Hansen: The Legacy by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins NZ, HB) RRP $50 (NZ) $45 (AUS), available now


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