Scotty Stevenson searches in vain for inconvenient truths in a muzzled new book on Steve Hansen
You have to admire the bravery of Gregor Paul, who has written Steve Hansen – The Legacy . Rare is the author who is prepared to lay down the ultimate editorial challenge to himself in the very first line of a biography, and Paul certainly does not shy away when he opens with “Steve Hansen was asked by many publishers, many times if he wanted to tell the story of his time as All Blacks coach in his own words. He always declined because he didn’t want to betray confidences and reveal conversations with players and fellow coaches that he didn’t want to be made public.”
Ultimately, given Steve Hansen didn’t want to do it, Paul felt obliged to – a very honorable premise indeed. If he does say so himself, and he does, “This book had to be written”. New Zealand sport’s literary record is largely comprised of ghostwriten autobiographies with the subject in full control of the final product. How refreshing to open a book, then, that promises from the opening whistle to lift the lid on one of the most succesful, complex, divisive and complicated coaches in rugby.
Alas, nothing is ever easy, and given Paul’s acknowledgement that he was one of the few journalists in Hansen’s time in charge of the national side who was afforded the long leash, Steve Hansen – The Legacy plays it far too safe. That’s the problem with long leashes. You still have to wear a collar. The author does not attempt to hide his admiration for his subject, but given this is not a sanctioned biography and that the Paul claims he had full editorial control, it feels some tricks have been missed.
In the telling of the Hansen story, Paul has leaned heavily on his own reportage of the time, and has augmented that experience with contributions from a range of sources (players, management, and coaches) who were close to Hansen. The reader is advised that Hansen was also interviewed for the book, but had no say in how his answers would be used in the final product. Therein lies some intrigue for those of us who also covered rugby during the Hansen period: how much of the opinion contained within is the author’s and how much is the subject’s?
In his direct quoting of Hansen, Paul shows his loyalty to the source. But having defined Hansen as the man who “made the heaviest footprint in this country’s rugby history”, so many others are reduced to roadkill on the route to beatification. The reader is never quite sure whether Paul is reflecting Hansen’s point of view or stating his own. John Mitchell was a coach who “used his time with the All Blacks to become a career coach” [John Mitchell was handed the job as a 37-year old and was sacked after the 2003 Rugby World Cup after just a couple of seasons in charge], Sir Graham Henry was “emotionally one-dimensional”
Hansen could be a bully – a fact noted by the author but largely dismissed as just one of those things
Hansen, on the other hand, is pitched as “a deeply considerate, empathetic and compassionate human being” which he was entirely capable of being. He could also be a bully – a fact noted by the author but largely dismissed, and more than once, as just one of those things. The same must be said for the catalogue of other personal failings addressed by this book: acknowledged but seemingly inconvenient in the telling of the tale. That’s a shame because as the All Blacks are fond of saying, “success is a lousy teacher” and a more in-depth investigation of those flaws may have proved a more useful lesson.
Former All Blacks assistant coach Mike Cron’s contribution to the narrative provides some much needed dissent – and bonus swearing – but, true to the All Blacks cultural code, others quoted (Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Steve Tew, Conrad Smith) are used predominantly to reinforce the narrative that Hansen was some kind of genius, which made up for anything else. Paul states “there were some occasions when some players felt Hansen went too far” but that’s as far as he goes. Oddly, while scant attention is paid to Hansen’s own slip-ups, an entire chapter is dedicated to Aaron Smith’s act of infidelity, and Hansen’s response to it.
Perhaps the meatiest chapter centres on the drawn series with the British and Irish Lions in 2017, when Paul says the All Blacks coach “gave his inner bully license to roam freely” and that Hansen was “surprised at how quickly and easily he was able to rattle Gatland.” The evisceration of Gatland’s character and credentials illustrate a certain jingoism in his own recollection of events as does his assessment of the unsuccessful 2019 Rugby World Cup bid.
Steve Hansen – The Legacy succeeds as a perfectly reasonable and well-detailed telling of a time in All Blacks history. Paul’s craft as a rugby writer is undeniable. However, as a deep and unflinching investigation into Hansen’s complex character, it seems inconvenient truths have been too conveniently ignored.
Steve Hansen – The Legacy by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins, $50) is available in bookstores nationwide.