“Righto, I can see thousands. So we are here to establish if I’m staying or going……. so I’m going”.
In a packed conference room at a central Auckland CBD hotel, All Blacks head coach Steven Hansen, flanked by New Zealand Rugby (NZR) CEO Steve Tew and NZR Chairman Brent Impey, announced that he will step down from his role of eight years, at the end of the Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan.
Steve Hansen no more
It’s a bit hard to fathom after 16 years. Especially because, as more than once Hansen himself pointed out, he is not leaving anywhere yet. He still has 12 months with the most dominant outfit in world rugby history, to chase the biggest achievement in world rugby – a sweet trifecta of three consecutive World Cup successes.
Why departing? Well, the time is right. It’s right for the All Blacks, for NZ Rugby and for Hansen and his family (who will be the greatest winner, once the Cantabrian log-offs for the last time from his work laptop). He will finally have time to spend with his wife Tash and his kids, doing things that normal husbands and fathers do when they are at home. Hansen referred once again that he is public property, which is a duty that comes with the job, but he’s keen to be ‘just Steve’ again.
“As only people who have done the job will understand, there are not only heavy demands on yourself but also on your family. My family has given me unreserved love and support over the last 16 years and I feel it’s now time to make them the sole focus.”
“It’s been a huge privilege to be part of the All Blacks for such a long time and I’m really looking forward to, and excited by the challenges, of the next 12 months.”
Hansen is well known to be sarcastic, and still playful with the media. And yet, this was the most humble press session any of the gathered journalists had seen since the former Crusaders coach took the reigns of the men in black seven years ago.
Hansen led All Blacks masterfully
Seriousness replaced that grin he more often had when you know Steve Hansen was giving the reply that ‘won’t answer your question’ but, would fit the sender’s purpose of controlling information and its release to the public. Every press conference attended, every word spoken by the head coach has been controlled, carefully planned, perfectly addressed to make his point.
This time you could peel layers of sadness from his face. Emotions that flooded the man, when his wife’s name was mentioned. Under that shield of the smooth operator, the media saw glimpses of just a man.
He was asked when he made the decision; he replied that halfway through the current season, he stopped to reflect on it and started to form the idea that might be time to leave. Hansen had lengthy chats with his wife and once the decision was made, he informed Steve Tew who was not allowed to tell anyone. Hansen added, “We had a lot of talks. At the end was an easy decision to make.
“And because of that, it doesn’t weight heavy on you. It allows you to go and do the job you need to do”.
A job that requires first to retain the Bledisloe Cup for the 17th consecutive year and then to tackle the biggest challenge of all, winning the World Cup in Japan.
All Blacks plan in place for next 12 months
The time of the announcement was carefully chosen to facilitate the work to be done in the next 12 months. “I’m pleased with the timing of it”, Hansen said. “It won’t distract me to have you [media] to ask me every five minutes what I’m going to do and I can concentrate on my job.
“I’m still incredibly excited for what is coming ahead.”
The announcement ends months of speculation about his future, which saw New Zealand media guessing if the World Cup-winning coach would have left it all behind or kept going for the love of the game. So what’s next?
Well, there are two ‘what’s next’ questions to be asked; one for Hansen, and one for the All Blacks.
The first it’s easy to answer because Hansen has clarified that he doesn’t know, and media shouldn’t bother querying him because his answer would be “I don’t know”. However, knowing how NZR is protective of its intellectual properties on two legs. For example, former assistant coach Wayne Smith was told that he could only take up coaching roles that wouldn’t clash directly with the All Blacks development and success.
For some, it’s not impossible to vision Steve Tew tempting Steve Hansen with a tailored-made rugby administration job which maybe includes all Blacks selection and mentoring up and coming coaches. Of course…. after the RWC2019 and a well deserved time off.
‘Who next’ is the ultimate All Blacks question
Regarding the second part, Steve Tew has confirmed that official engagement and job recruitment will happen only after the World Cup, with Brent Impey stating; “We have a relationship with all the possible candidates.
“They will now make their move as they know the outcome of this announcement. We will talk to them but, the official process will only start after returning from Japan. We feel that we have enough time to conduct a fair process”.
So who are the candidates NZR have relationship’s with? Let’s divide them into three groups:
The outsiders: Warren Gatland and Vern Cotter.
Both highly respected on the world stage, with important experiences at national level with the Welsh team and the British and Irish Lions for Gatland, and Montpellier and Scottish team coaching roles for Cotter.
Gatland has been linked to the English job after Eddie Jones’s departure set for December 2019. He has local coaching experience with Waikato and often returns to New Zealand, where his son Bryn plays for the Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Vern Cotter, who lost the English job to Jones after being axed by Scotland, is in his second year with Top14 giants Montpelier but can proudly write on his resume being part of the successful 2005-2006 Crusaders campaigns, under Robbie Deans.
The surprises: Scott Robertson and Dave Rennie.
Scott Robertson has confirmed his interest in coaching the All Blacks and his track record of successes with Canterbury (winners in 2013 and 2015), the Baby Blacks (U20 World Cup winners in 2014) and the Crusaders (Super Rugby winners in 2017 and 2018) speaks for itself.
However, some may argue that the lack of international experience may be his Achilles’ heel and delay his appointment to the top gig. But Razor is, in our opinion, the most exciting future All Blacks coach prospect.
Dave Rennie is currently acquiring that international experience in Scotland with the Glasgow Warriors in the Guinness Pro14 competition. Rennie, however, can wave a domestic CV that many should be envy of. He won the NPC title as head coach of Wellington in 1986, he guided the Baby Blacks to three consecutive World titles from 2008 to 2010 and most recently he led the Chiefs to back to back Super Rugby honours in 2012 and 2013 with the assistance of rugby guru Wayne Smith.
The most obvious: Ian Foster and Joe Schmidt.
The All Blacks have always been big on a succession plan. Players, coaching staff and supporting staff have been appointed within the existing wider group, meaning that Sir Graham Henry was the last who took the main seat of the All Blacks coming from outside [imported from Europe]. Steven Hansen was the chosen one to replace the Aucklander after the RWC2011, as part of the continuity policy NZR is proud of.
During his announcement, Hansen said of Ian Foster, “Fozzy will be a great head coach. He has developed as a coach and as a man. You go on about his lack of international experience and that he didn’t win anything while at the Chiefs. I had the record for most consecutive losses with Wales and most consecutive wins with the All Blacks.
“One day you are a bad coach, the other a good coach. All is irrelevant for the right person. But I don’t think it is right for me to say that guy should get the job. It’s the Union’s job. And for the first time in my life, I will keep my opinion for myself because it’s the right thing to do”, he concluded. That big smile showing that he was only letting the rugby world learn what he still wanted them to know.
And then there is Joe, the Irishman. The guy that twice in three matches has cracked the All Blacks defence and attack, has showed the world the All Blacks can be just a bunch of guys with a black jersey on, playing with a ball.
He is currently the best coach in World Rugby. He’s a kiwi and he wants to come back home. But he has announced, after the November Tests, that he will take time off coaching following the World Cup to concentrate on his family and his son.
Before Hansen’s announcement the most preferred theory going around sports newsrooms was that Hansen would have kept the job for one or two more years to accommodate Joe’s plans.
Now we know that that is a no-no. So who might be next?
Ok let us present you with the most unlikely of theories. The most absurd. The most bizarre. Yet, the one that might make you think.
First, like every good devil’s advocate, Last Word on Rugby must refer to a precedent in NZ Rugby that will help debate our case. Following Sir Gorgon Tietjen’s resignation as All Blacks Sevens head coach in 2012, NZR appointed the first foreign coach to a national representative team, the Scotsman, Clark Laidlaw.
However, Laidlaw was tied up in his last year of a contract with English outfit London Irish, so former players and regional 7s coaches Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama, took Interim coaching roles, for one World Rugby Sevens Series season. Once Laidlaw was released by London Irish, he assumed the head coach role – and was recently named, Coach of the Year.
So, what if NZR recognize that Joe Schmidt is the finest option of all, and they would do anything to accommodate him?
Could they negotiate his future contract, install an interim coaching group and agree that his assistant coaches might lead the All Blacks till Schmidt is fully ready to ascend to the head coach position. For example, till the November Tests in 2020?
The guy certainly is worth the risk, if he were willing to take on the task of leading the All Blacks in the future.
It is all supposition, and will mean that at the end of the RWC campaign – win or lose – Steve Hansen will end his term in charge. Happy with his decision, so thank you Steve. You have become a better leader and success than many would have ever thought.
Meanwhile, let’s just sip Spritz and Cuba Libre this Kiwi summer, speculating on the next All Blacks ‘main man’.
“Main photo credit”
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