Giving his wife a more normal life is part of the reason Steve Hansen has decided to step down as All Blacks coach following next year’s Rugby World Cup.
The normally stoic Hansen became emotional as he spoke to John Campbell about his wife, Tash, and the sacrifices she’d made during his time with the All Blacks, which started in 2004 as an assistant coach before he stepped up to the top job in 2012.
“Everything,” Hansen said when asked how important Tash was to him by TVNZ's John Campbell.
“You’re away so much, you rely on her to be able to make sure the kids are functioning okay and doing what they need to do, (they’ve) got her support because you’re not there to support them.”
“She’s got some wise counsel, she’s been a very, very important part of making me a better person.”
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard once said his position was the second most important in the nation behind the captain of the Test cricket team, a line that is surely applicable to both the All Blacks coach and captain in New Zealand.
With six years in such a high-pressure role, it was clear the intense public spotlight had taken its toll on all of the Hansen family, but particularly Tash.
We wanted our team to be as open and honest as we could be- Steve Hansen
“It’s tough on the person who has to wait (while the public make requests of Hansen), normally it’s Tash,” the 59-year-old Hansen said.
“She’s got really good, normally she’ll say ‘I’ll take the photo’, she doesn’t like being in them so the easiest thing is for her to take it then she doesn’t have to be in it,” a grinning Hansen added.
“It’s become a part of our life, it’s not a part of our life that we want forever and it’s probably one of the reasons why in the end you just want a bit of normality.”
“You want to go out without everyone staring at you.”
Naturally, the other major consideration for Hansen was what the best thing for the All Blacks was.
“The team is always bigger than the individual, I just think it’s time after ’19, for someone fresh to come in and put their slant on it and hopefully take them to an even higher level.”
NOTHING BIGGER THAN THE TEAM
The team being bigger than the individual was the “biggest mantra” in the All Blacks, according to Hansen.
Reflecting on his tenure, Hansen said the main focus was always on self-improvement, both for him as a man and for the team.
“I remember once they’d given it (the job as All Blacks coach) to me, you think jeez, am I going to be good enough to do this,” Hansen said.
“Then you start delivering and then the team starts delivering back and the people you’re working with and you all grow together.”
“All we’ve wanted to do is be better than we were the day before.”
“It’s a reasonably simple philosophy but if everyone buys into that and you’ve got talent, you can achieve some things.”
A WISER HANSEN
Hansen will step up away from the team as a 60-year-old and hoped he was doing it as a better man than the one who had started as the head coach six years ago.
“I hope so, you’ve wasted your life if you haven’t got better as you’ve got older, and a little wiser.”
“But not just because of rugby. I’ve become a better man because of my wife, my kids, so there’s a whole lot of people who make you better.”
“You’ve got to be open to wanting to be better yourself.”
Hansen was candid about his improvement in dealing with the media, admitting frustration had sometimes got the better of him during press conferences.
“I think it’s pretty easy to make yourself look good by making fun of someone else,” he said.
“At times it’s easy to have a plug in the press conferences because you do sometimes get a little frustrated on where things are coming from.”
He reflected on an exchange with a reporter early on in his tenure that left the reporter reeling after stumbling over a question.
“I do remember that, I think I’ve got better at it, it’s important.”
Remarkably, Hansen has only ever coached the top ranked Test rugby side in the world, with the All Blacks holding the top spot since 2009, three years before he took over.
Hansen put that run down to a combination of hard work, mental toughness within the group and talent. The final ingredient is one he wouldn’t downplay, though he said raw talent in a player often came at the expense of a work ethic.
I think it’s pretty easy to make yourself look good by making fun of someone else- Steve Hansen
“A lot of hard work, a lot of planning, a lot of strategising, a lot of talent, we’re really blessed in this country to have a lot of talented athletes,” Hansen said.
“People who have the mental fortitude to want to be better, people who want to buy in to what you’re trying to do as a group and a team.”
“Some guys who get it easy because they’re so talented, they don’t have that work ethic, it’s not their fault, they’ve never been taught it, work ethic is a learned skill, either mum and dad teach you or your sport does.”
“What super talented athletes usually don’t have is a work ethic because they don’t need one, they just go out and do it, ‘this is easy’, they don’t even know how they do it.”
MCCAW THE ULTIMATE
For Hansen, former captain Richie McCaw was the ultimate example of someone who had willed and worked himself to greatness despite not being the most talented athlete.
“Richie McCaw is the greatest example of that, wasn’t our most talented athlete but my goodness, he was our greatest player by far,” Hansen said.
“When I look back at some of the things he did, you’ve just got to admire it because he used every ounce of what he had. Every day he was trying to get better, mentally he was tough in that he would force himself to work hard and probably harder than anyone else to get the talent, to get the skill to play the type of rugby he played in the end.”
“He’s a shining light for anyone who doesn’t have talent, a shining light for kids who don’t have a lot of talent that you can be something better than you think you are if you want it enough and you’ve got the mental fortitude and work ethic.”
More than the on-field results, Hansen took pride in off-field achievements like the team and sport becoming more inclusive, as typified by halfback TJ Perenara’s criticism of Wallabies star Israel Folau’s homophobic comments earlier this year.
“I think society has changed and we’re just a snapshot of society, our responsibility, because we’re scrutinised a lot, is that we are inclusive.”
That responsibility was something that aligned with Hansen’s personal values.
“I am a great believer in judging a person for who he is, or she is, rather than what she is, I mean who cares? If there’s someone who has your respect for the way they go about their life, it doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight. Really, who cares? As long as they’re happy.”
The development of men who he regarded as he would his own children also pleased the coach, though that emotional investment didn’t come without its trials when players made mistakes.
A lot of them are young men who are put in situations that they’re really not ready for- Steve Hansen
“You do (regard them as your children), you’re partly responsible for helping develop them as people, you’re not just a rugby coach, you’re a person coach, we’re a team which is owned by the country, we can’t get away from that, that’s just the way it is.”
“A lot of them are young men who are put in situations that they’re really not ready for in some cases, we’ve got to help them and we’ve also got to be understanding enough to know it won’t all be a box of chocolates.”
“All of us in the All Blacks make mistakes from time to time, it’s about being honest about those and learning from them as much as we possibly can.”
“I always think it’s like it doesn’t matter what your kids do, you’re always going to love them but sometimes you don’t like their behaviour.”
“If we’re going to give them to the country, we’ve got to make sure they’re good men.”
“We wanted our team to be as open and honest as we could be, we wanted our team to reflect that it is New Zealand’s team and I think we’ve achieved that.”