Steve Hansen in search of perfection for the All Blacks
Coach happy to deal with his country’s massive expectations
“There is no such thing as perfection,” Steve Hansen says. “But that doesn’t stop you striving for it.” On paper it reads like a piece of management-speak, a soundbite he has plucked from a motivational phrase book, but Hansen deserves more credit than that. His vocabulary is too colourful for it to be just another cliche. He described England’s win over the All Blacks last year as a “donkey-licking”, and said a previous defeat went down like “a cup of cold sick”.
In person, the line about striving for perfection sounded like a simple, spontaneous, assessment of his method. And if it makes you snort or start rolling your eyes, consider this: since the start of the last World Cup the All Blacks have played 33 matches, lost one, drawn one and won the rest. If they beat England today and Ireland next, they will become the first team in the professional era to win every game in a season.
The Royal Garden hotel, where the All Blacks are staying this week, is where Hansen and his squad have been continuing their study of how to achieve perfection on the sports pitch.
The one mistake they have made in their preparation this week, Hansen says, was allowing an English journalist to sneak into the team room and get a glimpse at the whiteboard which said “we are the most dominant team in history”.
Hansen did not want to be drawn into a debate about all that, and struck a more humble note. It was, he said, up to others to judge such things.
“All we can do,” he says, “is strive to be better.” Hansen then has had to find a way to kick on from No1. He has done it, he says, by seeking to improve week on week. The team do not set long-term goals.
“If you do, you fall over,” he says. Instead, he asks the squad after every match: “Are we happy with what we have seen?”. The right answer, even when they win, is never ‘yes’. “Our aim as a group of players, coaches, and managers, right down to our baggage man, is just to want to be better than we were the week before.” That, he says, “is the place we live in, that is what we do”.
Those gradual improvements mean that this team should be better than the one that lost at Twickenham last year. Hansen certainly thinks so, though he was too cagey to explain how.
But his players gave hints. Aaron Smith and Julian Savea both said that the team have been “too structured” in the past, and that the players had been encouraged to be more spontaneous in the way they play.
“We have,” Hansen says, “matured as a team.” The XV he sent out against France had a combined total of 853 caps, making it the most experienced side ever to take to a rugby field. Carter will win his 100th today, and there are three players in the team who have already reached their century: Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock. At the same time, the average age of the squad is only 26. Hansen has given debuts to 21 players in the past two years, and has been busy, he says, figuring out who can handle the pressure.
“We have massive expectations from our fans,” Hansen says. “And we wouldn’t change that, because over time those expectations have forced us to have even greater expectations of ourselves.”
Smith says that the All Blacks are “four million” strong. “The country stops when the All Blacks play,” he says, “and if the All Blacks are going well then the whole country is a bit happier.” He remembers how grumpy his own father used to get when the team lost.
“Some don’t survive the pressure of expectation,” Hansen says. “Some guys can pull the jersey on and take off running straight away. Others take a bit of time.”
Brodie Retallick, 22, is one of the players who took off running. He came into the team in the summer of 2012, and has won 22 caps since. He was, along with 13 other All Blacks, recently named by the International Rugby Players Association as one of the top three players in his position in the world.
He says that he “you can’t put a price” on how much he has learned from playing alongside the senior players. “You come into a World Cup-winning team, and everyone has such high standards,” he says. “You have got to get to their level pretty quick.”
“There is a legacy that is built over many, many Test matches,” Hansen says. “And those that come into the team realise that they have a job to honour that legacy and try and improve on it.” The All Blacks are, he says, “a family and a brotherhood”.
The younger players in the current squad, such as Retallick, Smith, and the two outhalves fighting to understudy Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett, are learning all this first-hand from the players they idolised as teenagers.
Smith, who used to be an apprentice hairdresser, gives free haircuts to his team-mates but he says he would be too terrified to go anywhere near McCaw’s head. But then McCaw is a scary man. He was a lot more frank about how much he hated losing to England last year than Hansen has been.
“A few of us,” McCaw says, “have got memories from last year, so that adds a bit of edge.” Hansen may have said that revenge was a “hateful word” which should not be used in “a beautiful game”. His captain, it seems, is not so demure.