Memories of 1971 first Test the inspiration for Hansen

All Blacks coach there as a 12-year-old and confident current side can repeat the feat

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen speaks at a press conference ahead of the first Test against the Lions. Photo: Inpho

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen speaks at a press conference ahead of the first Test against the Lions. Photo: Inpho

 

No one is sure exactly how many fans were in Dunedin for the first Test match of the Lions’ 1971 tour. Carisbrook, the old House of Pain, was a ramshackle stadium, a jumble of permanent and temporary stands, and for that match its capacity had been boosted to around 45,000. But those were only the ones who had paid to get in. There were plenty more, at least another 10,000 or so, up on the railway embankment atop the hill around the back of the ground, which the locals all called the Scotsman’s Grandstand, where the passing trains would sometimes slow to a halt so that the passengers could catch a glimpse of the match. Something around 55,000 altogether, then. Or just under half as many people as lived in the city.

Steve Hansen was somewhere among them. He had only just turned 12, and his father Des, who coached at a local club called Marist RFC, had seats just behind the hoardings. It was Hansen’s very first Test match, and they were so close to the pitch that, he says, he could hear the players’ conversations through the roar of the crowd. Hansen, like every little kid at his first game, remembers being struck by how big the players seemed to be. The All Blacks pack, in particular, giant men such as “Pinetree” Meads, “Jazz” Muller, Ian Kirkpatrick. Not that their size helped them much in that match, which the Lions turned into one long lesson in scrummaging.

Willie John McBride falls to the ground after being tackled during the first Test in 1971. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
Willie John McBride falls to the ground after being tackled during the first Test in 1971. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

“I overheard Sandy Carmichael saying to Colin Meads: ‘How do you like that scrummaging, boyo?’” Hansen said on Thursday, “because the Lions had just pushed them back about five metres. And Meads said back: ‘Well, not too bad, but we just scored a try.’” It’s a good story. The problem with it is that when you look in the record books you see the All Blacks didn’t actually manage to score a try in that game, and Carmichael wasn’t playing, because he had been battered so badly in the infamous “Battle of Canterbury” the previous weekend. The Lions’ props that day were Sean Lynch and “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan, who scored the match-winning try.

Still, the point is that, as Hansen said, “those memories are things you take away and you keep”, even if they change a little in the telling over time. And besides, Hansen’s team are far too young to pull him up on the details. He says they have done a lot of talking about the history of the Lions’ tours in the last few weeks. He and his fellow coaches have been trying to teach the team what this all means. Because when you cut through all the bluff and bluster, the back-and-forth of barbed remarks with Warren Gatland, Hansen has a “massive amount of respect for the Lions”, and, you suspect, a healthy respect for Gatland too. “He is a good coach, he’s got his own style, and he’s selected a good team.”

Of the Lions tour in general, Hansen said: “This is a once in a career thing.” Which, he explained, is why the All Blacks agreed to release their players back to their franchise teams for the first few tour games. Just as that match at Carisbrook stuck with him, these games, he explained, “will create memories for some of these kids that they will not only take with them for all time, but which will also inspire them to push harder to make their franchise teams, to make the All Blacks. That’s what this Lions tour does for our rugby. So we respect it a lot.” He said he has been thinking about where this series ranks among the challenges he’s faced in his own career as a coach. “Right up there,” he decided, with the World Cup.

Last week, after the Lions beat the Maori, Gatland mischievously suggested that Hansen was “a little bit worried” about how good the Lions might be. He does not sound it. He says he is feeling “cool, calm, excited” about Saturday’s match. “Worry,” Hansen says, “is a waste of emotion. If the thing you’re worrying about has happened, then there’s no point worrying about it. And if you’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened, then make a plan to fix it so you don’t have to worry about it. But yes,” he said with a smile, “that was good feedback from Warren.”

Hansen speaks to his coaches during training. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho
Hansen speaks to his coaches during training. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho

Of the Lions tour in general, Hansen said: “This is a once in a career thing.” Which, he explained, is why the All Blacks agreed to release their players back to their franchise teams for the first few tour games. Just as that match at Carisbrook stuck with him, these games, he explained, “will create memories for some of these kids that they will not only take with them for all time, but which will also inspire them to push harder to make their franchise teams, to make the All Blacks. That’s what this Lions tour does for our rugby. So we respect it a lot.” He said he has been thinking about where this series ranks among the challenges he’s faced in his own career as a coach. “Right up there,” he decided, with the World Cup.

Last week, after the Lions beat the Maori, Gatland mischievously suggested that Hansen was “a little bit worried” about how good the Lions might be. He does not sound it. He says he is feeling “cool, calm, excited” about Saturday’s match. “Worry,” Hansen says, “is a waste of emotion. If the thing you’re worrying about has happened, then there’s no point worrying about it. And if you’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened, then make a plan to fix it so you don’t have to worry about it. But yes,” he said with a smile, “that was good feedback from Warren.”

(Guardian service)

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