In the immediate aftermath of the All Blacks drawing the series-deciding test against the British and Irish Lions, coach Steve Hansen let his guard slip, just a bit, for just a moment.
Interviewed on television he was asked about the decision by referee Romain Poite to change his mind over a penalty in the 77th minute that might (probably would have) given the All Blacks the win, and the series.
Barely hiding his fury, Hansen said it was a disappointing and controversial decision. It was frustrating. All he wanted was consistency.
From there he went to the All Blacks dressing room and then on to a packed media conference in the Auckland Cricket facility beside the No 2 ground at Eden Park.
In that time, he’d been collared by the All Blacks media team of Joe Locke and Jo Malcolm and between them, and his own knowledge, he got himself under control.
Hansen’s performance at the press conference was very good. He opened by praising the Lions and his teammates, then tackled Poite’s dubious call head on, declaring rugby is a tough game to referee, that Poite had made his call and that the All Blacks would live with it.
Any complaints would be dealt with through the proper channels and he wasn’t about to air their grievances in public. He was pushed and prodded, but he held firm.
The next morning, he loosened up slightly on the topic, but still steered clear of criticising the match officials, suggesting instead that rugby’s complex laws needed to be stripped back and simplified.
After about 20 minutes, Locke moved in to call a halt, but Hansen told him to wait. He wasn’t in a hurry, he said. Fire away, he told us.
Hansen loves a chat. He loves a debate more. And he really loves a stoush. He will always have the last say. Always. But he is no longer the bully boy he was. He’s actually good fun to deal with and highly entertaining to share a beer with.
That’s not to say he isn’t manipulative, he is; or forceful, he is that too; and he’s not one to hold back if he thinks he’s been wronged. If he rings you, it won’t be to check on the weather.
The Lions test series finished in a draw but Hansen was a clear winner, especially when compared with his more taciturn, monotone counterpart Warren Gatland.
Hansen loves his time at the top table and during the Lions tour he was engaging, funny, philosophical, cheeky, goading and fatherly.
When he’s had a poke at Gatland and the Lions, he’s done it subtly, usually praising them and wondering at the same time why they don’t play that way more often.
After the test against Samoa, I asked him if Gatland will have been surprised by anything he saw in the 78-0 win; or if he expects to see anything new from the Lions against the Maori All Blacks.
Hansen laughed, then said: “That’s a bit of a loaded gun you’ve given me there Jimmy. I have to think carefully before I answer that.”
Then he picked up the gun and didn’t miss.
He talked about how the Lions would play, ribbing Gatland relentlessly about his promise that they were holding back.
We now know they were, but at the time Hansen was at his entertaining and cheeky best, clubbing Gatland with subtle digs and goading him to play a more attacking style.
It often seems they don’t like each other. They shared a beer and a chat after the final test, Hansen revealing that they get on, but aren’t mates because they don’t really know each other.
He tried once to suggest it was the media’s fault, this public rivalry, but he has stoked the fires every chance he’s had. Hansen knows how to play the game off the field. He has the ball on a string.
He knows when to play the nice guy, coming to Gatland’s defence after the New Zealand Herald’s depiction of him in a cartoon as a clown, saying it was poor form to ridicule the man for trying to do his job.
“Do you stop your life because of that? Do you shrivel up and become a flower that needs water all the time … “
– Steve Hansen
Hansen is a better man to deal with now he is head coach. He struggled as Graham Henry’s assistant, having to toe the party line on issues when he might have felt differently.
Hansen and Henry are very different people and that was never more evident than when they fronted the media. Henry, a strict former headmaster, enjoyed lecturing the media, berating us often and scolding those he felt had stepped out of line.
Hansen is more engaging. He’s like the big brother who throws his arm around your shoulders, gives you a short, sharp jab in the ribs, and word of encouragement in the ear.
If you ask him a curly question, or try to get at a topic obliquely, he calls you on it. “Just ask me what you want to ask me,” he often says, to chuckles from the floor.
And he can wax lyrical when he wants, too. Asked before the final test about pressure, the former police officer said real pressure was performing CPR on someone, and then having to tell their loved ones the patient had died.
As for the demands from the public, that was part of the job, he said.
“I’ve always thought this. Our fans have a massive part to play in who we are because they have a massive expectation.
“When you go for a walk you don’t think ‘I’m going to go free here’. It’s not a free walk, this. You pull your hoodie up and put your sunglasses on but they still know who you are so you take your hoodie off and sunglasses off and hold your wife’s hand and hope like heck they don’t want too many photos of her because she’s way better looking than me.
“Do you stop your life because of that? Do you shrivel up and become a flower that needs water all the time because you stay inside or do you go outside and enjoy being alive and accept that, yes, some people want at a photo? Well how long does that take? And when you get sick of it you shorten your walk up and go back home.”
The Guardian newspaper memorably said his performance was at times “like a Miss World finalist, calling for global oval-ball harmony and insisting it will not necessarily be a terrible thing if his side were to lose the final Test”.
The morning after that final test, a game that had promised so much yet finished in an unsatisfying draw, Hansen was philosophical. He talked about the demands on the referee and how the real problem was with the game’s laws.
He discussed the importance of the Lions to world rugby and how they had to remain. And he reflected on a series that most – even those from Britain and Ireland – thought the All Blacks would win 3-0 yet had finished in a 1-1 draw.
Did it mean the All Blacks had gone backwards, he was asked?
“We’re used to winning everything. But that’s one of the reasons this has been a great series. People get a wee sense of reality. There are other teams out there who can play rugby, especially when you combine four of them into one.
“It’s pretty disrespectful to think just because we’ve drawn a series we’ve gone backwards. We had a bump in the road against a well-coached team full of quality athletes, but you want a few road bumps, because somewhere they’re going to hit you and you need to know how to deal with them.”
Hansen used to deal with those bumps by crashing into them, steamrolling over the top, trying to crush them flat.
He’s smarter than that now. He now rides over the bumps … well, most of them, most of the time.