Summer. Time for leftovers sandwiches, and some reflection over a drink or two. Mark Jennings imagines what the All Blacks coach might be thinking about when he cracks open a can.
By now, Steve Hansen will be sitting on a beach somewhere, quietly sipping on a can of beer. God knows, the man deserves it. The demands of the job would be intolerable to most people.
We all know the worn-out refrain about how All Black rugby defines our national identity and the coach is just as responsible for the health of our nation as the Prime Minister. I suspect Hansen worries more about keeping his team motivated though the impossibly long international season and how he is going to win the constant off-field mind games with the likes of Cheika, Gatland and Schmidt.
The fact that he has done both in the past season is a reflection of New Zealand Rugby’s clever decision to give him tenure while other countries (think South Africa and Australia) regularly reach for the eject button, an excellent group of players and Hansen’s own laid back, but hard-as-nails approach.
Hansen’s edge has been his ability stay one step, possibly two, ahead of opposition coaches.
His 2016 game plan of using big skilful forwards like backs and constantly moving the ball through the hands of 15 players until an exhausted opposition capitulate in the last 15 minutes has been transformational in the tactics of modern rugby. Not quite as defining but almost as effective has been the systematic use of pinpoint box kicks put up by Aaron Smith for Dagg, Smith, Savea or sometimes Barrett to soar high, gather, and burn clear.
Whether Hansen or Foster or Smith came up with the plan doesn’t matter. The boss has the final say and takes the credit.
One suspects Hansen’s other advantage over his rivals is his brutal honesty with those around him and, perhaps more importantly, himself. How many times do you find yourself nodding when Hansen gives a frank post-match interview?
No blaming the ref and no gilding the lily.
When players aren’t playing well, he puts it out there, not too soon but not too late either. He does it, not in a negative or “you’ve let the team down son “ kind of way, but more an honest articulation of what knowledgeable rugby fans know to be true.
So, given the man and coach he is, Hansen will be thinking about at least a couple of things as pads along the beach in the next few weeks.
He will ponder whether Northern Hemisphere rugby is in better shape than we all thought.
How tired were the All Blacks by the time they hit Chicago and lost their first ever match to the Irish?
Common sense will tell him they were bloody tired. The mental and physical effort required to beat Australia and claim the world record 18 wins in a row would have drained this All Blacks team more than anyone has acknowledged.
But, if tiredness turns out to be only part of the equation then Hansen will look at why his team, particularly the forwards, couldn’t retain possession against aggressive Irish and French teams.
Good analysts have already pointed out that no matter how brilliant you are – and Ben Smith, Dagg, Barrett and Lienart-Brown are probably the most brilliant players in the world at the moment – living off scraps and winning will become mission impossible against good sides, and the Lions next year will be a very good side.
The Irish and French used their ball-carrying loose forwards and front rows to hammer the All Blacks’ defence.
Hansen will be thinking hard about two players who could do this this job for him against the Lions – Charlie Faumuina and Liam Squire. One senses both these big units are about to hit their prime. They both have the speed and footwork to go forward and the bulk to work in close. Squire can also do damage out wide.
Owen Franks and Jerome Kaino would have to be dropped from the run-on team and that is no easy call. Both are tough warhorses but they also have a lot of kilometres on the clock. Franks could come off the bench and might prove effective late in the game but Kaino’s lack of prowess at lock is now a problem.
Hansen really requires a lock-cum-blindside flanker on the bench because he needs Ardie Savea to cover Sam Cane on the openside and inject his frenetic brand of energy late in the match.
Cane is a fine player but it doesn’t look like he has McCaw’s ability to go 80 minutes and pull a special play out of the bag in the dying stages of a match like the legendary skipper did.
This means another name will swirl around in Hansen’s mind over the summer, the current enigma of New Zealand rugby, Steven Luatua.
If he fulfills his potential, Luatua is almost certainly the answer – he can lock the scrum and pack down on the blind side. Tall and rangy, Luatua is as good as Kieran Read in the lineout and he can get around the park and knock over players too.
His performance against Italy once again showed that he is a talented and tough player. What he can’t quite seem to do is bring enough impact for decent periods of the game.
You have to think that Hansen will have already told the conditioners to see if they can bulk up Luatua and get him super fit, a bit like they have done with Cane and Coles.
Having the option of a versatile fast powerhouse of the bench is going to be crucial late in those tests against the Lions.
Hansen will no doubt also be calling in the psychologists. Their number one task will be to sort out Aaron Smith. TJ Perenara, strong, smart and brave is probably the number two halfback in the world now, but he is not number one. When the All Blacks are at the best and ripping sides apart, Smith is at the heart of it. The long fast passes, the highly accurate kicks, the deft runs and the urging on of his forwards make him a hugely important ingredient in the current game plan.
We have already seen that if Smith falters or is off his game, the All Blacks are not the same devastating force that got them to 18 wins in a row.
Part of what make Hansen such a good coach is that he is almost mistake free. His opponents seem to have a habit of making dubious selections and bringing players off the bench to late or sometimes too early.
Hansen made just one mistake this season; he played Smith when the little Highlander was in a black hole. He should have selected Perenara. It was a rare misstep and you can be sure the coach has mumbled into his beer a few times over it.
His New Year’s resolution will likely be “no repeats” in 2017.
*This story first appeared in Summer Newsroom