The All Blacks and the blessings of telling it straight

IRFU and Schmidt could learn a lesson from way world champions have dealt with media

Steve Hansen has been mentoring Canterbury players, and by extension many an All Black, even before Richie McCaw joined the Crusaders. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

Steve Hansen has been mentoring Canterbury players, and by extension many an All Black, even before Richie McCaw joined the Crusaders. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

 

After the father came the son. Des Hansen, who passed away the week of the 2012 Bledisloe Cup decider in Brisbane, was one of Christchurch and the Marist club’s foremost rugby gurus.

“He didn’t just coach rugby skills,” said former Marist club captain Terry McCormick the day he died. “His philosophy was teaching people how to think the game.”

Three years on, here sits Steve Hansen, concluding the latest masterclass in public relations, when a Kiwi journalist attempts to strum his heart strings.

Victory over Australia would nestle the 56-year-old beside Graham Henry, Brian Lochore and Fred Allen, All Black coaches whose achievements can never be questioned.

Last Thursday afternoon in Pennyhill Park, the home of English rugby currently annexed by the world champions. That’s when the question about Des Hansen came.

“Steve, I know your dad was a massive influence on you and a very good coach in his own right. Can you say one piece of advice he gave you with regard to rugby coaching that rings in your ears to this day?”

Visibly unmoved, Hansen responded, “Yeah: You get all your options off the opposition.”

A deadpan pause before, “You might have to go away and think about that, Sam, from the look on your face. If you just take some time out in a slow and quiet place, I think you will work it out.”

That was the moment when most of the giggling crowd disregarded Australia’s chances at Twickenham today.

Hansen has been mentoring Canterbury players, and by extension many an All Black, even before Richie McCaw joined the Crusaders.

From Mosgiel in Otago, he had already established his pedigree, delivering NPC titles to Canterbury in 1997 and 2001, before a rocky period as Henry’s successor in Wales.

Part of the All Black coaching ticket since 2004, he succeeded Henry for a second time after the 2011 World Cup triumph. His gruff, hard-nosed exterior have made his team announcements enthralling. And fun.

Gets down to business

For starters, he doesn’t bother announcing the team. That’s done before he enters the room so he just gets down to business with a personality that’s devoid of bullshit.

It would be interesting to see what Hansen made of a suggestion that a news story is ignored in exchange for a supervised 15 minute “one-on-one” interview with a player or coach. That’s how the IRFU communications department sought to do business at this tournament.

Having revealed that Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring injury ruled him out of the Canada game, with Luke Fitzgerald starting at 12, this quid-pro-quo arrangement was offered in a pathetic appeal for a show of patriotism.

It was a decent story, though hardly something that should shake the foundations of Ireland’s World Cup campaign; still, the reaction was nothing short of paranoid. At the ensuing press conference, Joe Schmidt pointedly expressed his dissatisfaction, leaving everyone in the room in no doubt how he felt about a journalist doing his job in the correct manner.

There even followed at least one team meeting warning against leaks to the media. More than one source inside the camp relayed that Schmidt was livid.

Ireland coaches tied themselves up in knots over injury reports at this World Cup. The intent wasn’t to lie to the media or the Irish public but to keep their opponents guessing.

“The key thing is you want to get messages across to the people who support you, which is your fans,” is Hansen’s attitude to the media.

“You try to do it as nicely as you can. I said right at the beginning, enjoy the banter. No point being up here and hating it. Fudge it until you make it, then get out of here!”

Australia’s media approach is simple: wall-to-wall Michael Cheika with a bulldog press officer in former Wallaby hooker Adam Freier (another of the Randwick mafia).

Hansen answers questions before they get asked. Take the Craig Joubert incident last week when World Rugby made the gaffe of the tournament by publicly highlighting one refereeing decision.

Fix that problem

“I don’t think it’s Craig’s problem. I think it is the system’s problem. If you got technology that sits there and everyone says, why didn’t he use it? But he couldn’t use it and that’s the problem.

“World Rugby has to fix that problem. If he could have used it, we would have got a different decision. End of story. Referees have made mistakes from the first time the game was refereed . . . You just got to accept that.”

Wyatt Crockett blew up in training last Thursday morning. Hansen dealt with that right off the top of his press conference. Would he have made the team? No. The bench? Yeah, “Benny [Franks] wouldn’t have made it.”

The difference is Ireland’s comms department allow minor issues to fester, lacking any nous to know that a story can be killed by eye-balling it.

The handling of Paul O’Connell’s retirement was a good example of how not to handle a major story. When O’Connell couldn’t stand up, despite two valiant and horrendously painful-looking attempts, during half-time of the French game, it was clear his World Cup was over.

It took until 10.07am on the Tuesday for a two sentence press release to drop confirming his need for surgery.

One of the great warriors in the history of Irish sport is prematurely retired and Ireland’s media day goes ahead without the head coach, O’Connell (which was understandable) or a single Munster player.

That all the above were in an adjacent room made it even more bewildering to see junior squad members Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock and coach Greg Feek being peppered with questions about the Munster legend. After several reporters noted the ridiculousness of the situation, a Schmidt video about O’Connell appeared that night.

That Tuesday, before the Argentina defeat, was a complete disaster as the IRFU resources were further drained by the seemingly never-ending Seán O’Brien disciplinary hearing in London. O’Brien got a one-week suspension following damning testimony by Pascal Papé and the French doctor. Schmidt didn’t reappear until the Friday and was inevitably asked about Papé. That story couldn’t die as the IRFU never confirmed there would be no appeal. It was also stated on the Friday that Sexton trained fully. Turns out he pulled up after training.

Fractured foot

Conjecture reigned. It became very hard to believe a word they said after being informed Jared Payne was not playing against Italy for selectional reasons and not a fractured foot.

They fooled no one in the end.

Now, see the way New Zealand transmit their key messages. After the All Blacks thrashed France and before the Springbok semi-final, Hansen said: “I think the hardest thing in this week’s preparation is coming off the back of such a great win . . . Internally there is an emotional high to playing like that but it is really important to get a full stop as early as possible.”

Also, whatever the result of the final, the All Blacks won’t rush to leave London. Like Ireland did Cardiff.

Even Phillippe Saint-André did a media briefing the morning after New Zealand pulverised them 62-13. Stuart Lancaster was left blowing in the wind every day before the Uruguay game.

Ireland lost and Schmidt went to the safest public forum to address the fallout. When asked by Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show about regrets, Schmidt understandably brought it back to the injuries.

What do Ireland have to do to get to the next level? “I think they are at the next level.”

There was one interesting moment when Tubridy, perhaps inadvertently, left the door open for O’Connell’s return to a green jersey.

“Talking to him today,” said Schmidt, “I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him on a rugby field. At least I hope not. We certainly haven’t seen the last of him involved in some way with an Irish team I hope sometime in the future.”

Tubridy brought all his powers of journalism to bear by retorting: “Have you, in the sense that, in what, sorry, can you explain that if you would?”

We expected Schmidt to say as a coach but he spoke about O’Connell the player.

Tubrity, sensing no opportunity at all to probe further, moved swiftly on to the deathknell question for any Schmidt interview. He asked about the opposition.

Victor Matfield captained South Africa for the last time aged 38 last night.

During that never-ending Cardiff Tuesday, which seems like months ago now, Felipe Contepomi said: “And maybe you will see Paul in an Irish jersey again. You never know.”

More conjecture. The O’Connell to return drum will beat until he no longer laces up boots. Same happened Martin Johnson until the 2005 Lions set sail for New Zealand. There’s another tour down there in June 2017. O’Connell will still be younger than Matfield is now.

Of course Schmidt remains a brilliant coach whose value transcends even Irish rugby as his expertise reaches into other sports on this island.

This past 12 months he has spoken inspirationally at Arsenal, London Irish (along with David Nucifora) and to the Waterford hurlers.

Public knowledge

None of these gigs were supposed to become public knowledge but Irish people like to talk. Especially about things they are not supposed to be talking about.

“He came to speak to us for an hour, he was absolutely brilliant,” said Waterford hurling manager Derek McGrath. “He was just so ordinary. For the extraordinary coach that is he he was just so ordinary. His whole approach was to get the whole levels of intensity up and then the natural flow to your game would come after.”

The Schmidt ways work. Ireland were cursed by injury at the World Cup.

What doesn’t work is the constant attempts to hoodwink those who relay the message to the public. Hansen gets this. Cheika does as well.

The Australian media, by and large, are not accredited at the tournament because World Rugby refused to allow the use of separate advertising on their video content. But it’s Melbourne Cup week in Australia. The ARU accept where they are in the pecking order. Cheika and the Wallabies have been conducting offsite media interviews with the travelling Aussie press pack.

They know the media is not the enemy. They know there is no real enemy unless they start listening to the voices in their head.

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