Hansen and McKenzie, a tale of two coaches

Hansen . . . on the verge of breaking a record. Photo: AFP

Hansen . . . on the verge of breaking a record. Photo: AFP

One is 80 minutes away from a world record for consecutive Test wins, yet curiously is still to earn the genuine affection of the New Zealand public.

The other is yet to beat any of the All Blacks, Springboks or England, 12 months after his much-hyped ascent to the Wallaby throne, but seemingly retains the absolute faith of the Australian masses.

Welcome to the worlds of two of the key actors in this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup showdown: coaches who are poles apart in some instances, but of a parallel dimension in others.

Even after a decade, New Zealand is still learning to ‘love’ Steve Hansen.
Although he’s worked on the gruff exterior while presiding over an All Black side even more dominant than the Rugby World Cup winners, Hansen badly needs the world record. Should he get it, the achievement may be enough to allow the suits at the New Zealand Rugby Union to push through a contract extension, securing Hansen’s job through to the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour.

Like his Wallaby counterpart, Hansen plays his politics shrewdly.

He’s a very good coach but he’s also smart, having had to fight for all that he has, after a nondescript career as a largely second XV rep player.

This had an impact on his progress in the professional coaching ranks.

It was Hansen’s misfortune that he found himself in competition at Canterbury with Robbie Deans, who had been the star of the generation in which the two men played.

Reputation undoubtedly helped Deans leapfrog Hansen for both the Canterbury and then Crusaders head coaching positions, after the lesser-known man had been assistant to both of Deans’ predecessors.

To his credit, and the vindication of those who had supported him, Deans got results, unprecedented results, leaving Hansen firmly parked in the shade.

As a head coach, prior to getting the All Black ticket, Hansen’s record was mixed.

He won an NPC with Canterbury in 2001, but his subsequent time with Wales included a record run of 11-straight Test defeats. He actually could have wound up at the Brumbies rather than Wales, seeking a job there on the quiet earlier in 2001, before his eventual recruitment by then-Wales head coach Graham Henry.

He might have had to move to get out of Deans’ shadow, but Hansen had already planned for his return. He recognised the influence of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, and made sure he was on their mates list before he left.

Cozying up to his first Canterbury and Crusaders CEO didn’t hurt either.

Hansen and now long-serving NZRU CEO Steve Tew are great mates; an ‘investment’ by Hansen that has paid off handsomely.

Eight years with Henry, and a Rugby World Cup at the end of it, made sure that Hansen was next, although it’s questionable whether Tew could have got his man over the line had Craig Joubert awarded the French the penalties he should have at the back end of the 2011 final.

That the All Black machine has continued to purr, arguably scaling even greater heights, is a testimony to the strength of its senior player group, but also to Hansen’s stewardship.

Behind the stern façade, he is popular with his players, and enjoys a few beers with the boys, as well as a punt on the horses. Should his team advance into the record books, Hansen may finally move beyond grudging admiration into a revered position as one of the great All Black coaches.

Hansen enters Saturday with the tangible results but without the appropriate acclaim. The reverse is true of McKenzie.

Like Hansen, the Wallaby coach has overcome the knocks.

Once Australia’s most capped Test prop, McKenzie made the right ‘friends’ in coaching, serving as Rod Macqueen’s Wallaby deputy before he got hold of the Waratahs.

The road to the Wallabies has had its fair share of false turns. He turned down the job in 2006, was then beaten to it by Deans, while also being booted from Moore Park as the result of a power struggle.

A year in France saw Stade Francais finish a respectable fourth, but more trouble with player politics hastened another exit, this time accompanied by public spat between McKenzie and Stade’s outspoken owner.

The Queensland Reds provided McKenzie with the platform that has led to the Wallabies, but he has subsequently relegated key figures from that success, most notably James Horwill and Will Genia.

As with Hansen, the public and media perceptions of McKenzie are somewhat skew.

While the Kiwi required expert media and PR guidance on assuming the top role, the Wallabies have never had a coach so skilled in manipulating public opinion.

Whether it be via pliant newspaper reporters desperate to prove their ‘loyalty’, the ex-teammates who dominate the influential Fox commentary team, his own written columns, cuddling up to the most influential administrators, or even the odd online blog using aliases his players have had a lot of fun guessing; McKenzie has astutely fashioned his coaching brand.

Publicly, he is the man: friendly, out-going and totally in control, working to a grand plan.

Yet he is described by many who have worked with him as a bit of a loner, big on control, but who does very little of the actual hands-on coaching.

His intensity and paranoia can be such that some of the players even worried that the pressure was getting to him following the loss to England on last year’s European tour.

The motives for Dublin’s disciplinary crackdown were also questioned internally: not only had no set curfew been set for the players, some justifiably felt they’d been hung out to dry – an internal team issue was played out in the media to help position the coach in a positive light.

It was even privately suggested by some team management that the whole saga was insurance, lest the Wallabies lose more games against teams they were expected to beat.

When in doubt, it’s a time-honoured tactic to blame it all on the supposed failings of your predecessor!

McKenzie talks to his troops at halftime. Photo: Sportal

McKenzie talks to his troops at halftime. Photo: Sportal

Ultimately, success or otherwise will define McKenzie the coach.

How he handles the pressure of expectation such as around this weekend’s game – and one wonders already about the seeming U-turn on selection around Kurtley Beale – will be a big part of that.

For all of the cheerleading that has sustained him so far, there is no hiding from the win-loss bottom line, especially with a credible alternative in Michael Cheika lurking in the background, ready to take over should the Wallabies fail at the Rugby World Cup.

McKenzie loves his statistics: he was quick to ‘drop’ into the news media the historical significance of the Wallabies’ winning seven Tests in a row during the mid-year series against France.

One streak he hasn’t as yet proffered any comment on this week is the zero and six return against nations ranked above Australia on the IRB ratings so far during his watch.

It’s a record that simply isn’t good enough.

It is also why, as for Hansen, the Bledisloe Cup opener could be career defining.

• The Outsider, Roar

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