It was a pleasant afternoon in Marseilles as we settled in to watch the All Blacks prepare for their test against France, their last for the year.

They’d beaten England a week earlier, and Italy and Wales already on the tour, though none in a convincing manner.

The curtain would come down a week later with a loss to the Barbarians, a fitting end to a dreadful year that started with defeat to France in Dunedin.

It was the first of four test defeats, including three to South Africa, as the All Blacks lineout crumbled under the pressure of Victor Matfield.

The story goes, and it may be apocryphal, that Matfield was so confident of winning any throw that he bullishly told his hooker at one lineout to let the All Blacks know the call.

“It doesn’t matter, I’ll win it anyway.”

Steve Hansen was in charge of the forwards, was coaching the lineout, and he was far from happy.

He was copping flak from all sides, with former All Blacks like Robin Brooke chipping in with unwanted advice, and most of the media firing shots as often as we could.

Hansen wasn’t a popular figure. We saw him as a bully who loved to belittle you at any chance he could, so our exchanges were often bruising, if not brutal.

Things came to a head for me in Marseille when, as I stood on the sideline, he let rip about a whole series of stuff the media had said about him.

He finished with a superb line. “You’ve been on TV for three seconds and you think your shit doesn’t stink,” he said, before trotting off.

Months later over a coffee, Hansen apologised for his behaviour and we agreed it was more productive for both of us to get along.

He changed even more when he became head coach in 2012 because he was out from under Graham Henry’s shadow. He could be himself, not Henry’s henchman.

Hansen is still a man who enjoys a scrap and has never finished a debate he doesn’t believe he’s won, but there is a softer side to him few know about.

Earlier this year his wife, Tash, told him about a young lad who had broken his neck playing rugby and was laid up in the Burwood Spinal Unit.

His teammates would be heading away in a few months to support the All Blacks in Japan, but this lad couldn’t go because he would need a full-time caregiver and the cost was too high.

Hansen, with help from Ken Laban, organised a fundraiser in Wellington the Wednesday before the All Blacks would draw with South Africa.

He spoke at the event and donated an All Blacks jersey to be auctioned – all for a kid he’d never met, but who is now heading to Japan.

Steve and Tash Hansen present an autographed jersey at a fundraiser for a seriously injured rugby player. Photo: supplied.

Hansen has also stepped in when players have had financial or family issues, even those who were All Blacks but aren’t any more.

The former police officer has also backed his players in their support for the LGBTQ community and when the All Blacks received the Laureus Award, he used the international stage to suggest we all have a responsibility to look after the planet.

Hansen is the type of coach who knows when his players need a cuddle or a kick up the backside – and when they need both.

He is an incredibly staunch defender of them, yet thoroughly honest with them in private and, at times, in public too.

Remember when he dropped Sam Whitelock and told us all it was because he’d become one-paced?

Sometimes his love for his players can be his Achilles heel, but you can’t fault his passion.

In 2012, ahead of the test against Scotland, I wrote for Newshub that Wyatt Crockett was playing his eighth test and needed to establish himself as an All Black.

“His reputation took at battering when he was whistled off the park by Australian referee Stuart Dickinson as he failed to cope with Italian tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni in Milan in 2009, and it hasn’t really recovered.”

Hansen said Crockett collapsed because tighthead props bound on him illegally and that stricter policing of this by referees would help. I wrote that his explanation was lame.

He was far from impressed. At training he demanded I pack down against Crockett (I didn’t) and explained in detail how little I knew about scrummaging.

It was vintage Hansen and though he has definitely mellowed over the years, you still always know where you stand with him.

The All Blacks kick off their World Cup in Yokohama this Saturday and, with that, the countdown to the end of Hansen’s incredible association with the team will begin.

His stats are amazing. Two World Cup victories, a winning percentage in excess of 80 percent, and barely a dip in 2012 when he took over as head coach, or in 2016 when he lost legends of the game in McCaw, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

He is a phenomenal coach. As a coach he will be easily replaced, just as those six magnificent players were.

But replacing Hansen the bloke, the fella who loves rolling out pithy wisdom at press conferences, the sensible, good-humoured, robust, staunch, stubborn, caring leader of men, will be much harder.

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