If it were possible to measure confidence in a device with a scale, Hansen’s numbers would have been off the charts in the week of the final. He wasn’t complacent or arrogant, he just knew that his side had the measure of the Wallabies in every way.
He respected them, knew the dangers they posed and was aware that Australia had emerged from the so-called pool of death and was in great shape, battle hardened and a different team than they had been a few months earlier at Eden Park when the All Blacks They beat them. Still, they left no residual doubt in Hansen the way the semi-final match against the Springboks did. Since Hansen had been elevated to the top spot, the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies eight times, drawn twice and lost once.
A big part of his role that week was trying to keep the team protected from distractions. That meant not putting into the public domain anything that the Wallabies, especially their coach Michael Cheika, could feed in preparation for the final. Hansen didn’t want the media to have cheap and incendiary headlines that they could twist to cause tension between the two teams and further enhance the sense of grievance the Wallabies seemed to be carrying.
Hansen, throughout his tenure, had used the media to annoy the various Australian coaches he had encountered. He made his famous “loaded gun” comment about Robbie Deans. In 2013 and 2014, he frequently teased Deans’ replacement Ewen McKenzie, accurately predicting which selections he would make and then offering him some advice as to why maybe they weren’t the right ones. These types of comments were not improvised. Hansen was completely strategic in the way he occasionally attacked a rival coach.
He did not do it to create drama or a little theater. He did so, ultimately, because he had determined that it would be beneficial to the team. And to come to the conclusion that it was the best thing for the team, he had to weigh factors such as his confidence in winning any verbal exchange. He never chose a fight that he didn’t think he would win.
In McKenzie’s case, somehow Hansen learned through his incredible network of insiders that tension was building on the Wallabies over the coach’s inability to settle into a No. 10. Hansen also felt that McKenzie, despite considering himself A keen media operator, he was not an intellectual giant and not possessed of the kind of sharp wit and calculating mind that could defend himself in a verbal combat competition. Hansen felt he could dominate McKenzie in the media and damage his confidence by doing so.
But Cheika, who took over for the Wallabies in November 2014, a job he held alongside his head coach role with the Waratahs until the end of Super Rugby in 2015, was a different story. Cheika, in Hansen’s opinion, was dangerously volatile. The Australian had a reputation for being abrasive. He was unpredictable and hotheaded, as demonstrated in early 2015 when coaching the Waratahs in Super Rugby.
At halftime during a game against the Blues in Sydney, Cheika burst into the referee’s room to make some suggestions as to where he was going wrong. It was a clear violation of the rules, but what made it more reckless was that Cheika did this at a time when he was under a six-month suspended suspension for kicking a cameraman. Cheika somehow escaped suspension, but Hansen was in awe that a coach of such position and experience would risk so much just to reprimand a referee in a Super Rugby game.
Hansen, then, couldn’t be sure of the value of trying to get under Cheika’s skin in the week of the final. He didn’t know how the Australian would react and more importantly, Hansen felt that Cheika liked the idea of getting into a verbal fight and would enjoy it. Cheika was eager to portray his team as the underdog and was fostering a siege mentality. He would have misrepresented everything Hansen said and used it to further convince his players that the world was against him. The Wallabies had harnessed that sense of outrage throughout the tournament to great effect and Cheika’s modus operandi was to use that energy to instill controlled anger and a greater alignment of purpose between the players and the coach.
The All Blacks brought that calm and focus onto the field and moved patiently but mercilessly, dismantling the Wallabies in the first half, before Nonu went on to shoot 50 meters to score and push the All Blacks to 21– 3 lead. Hansen felt that in the last quarter, the floodgates would open. The game turned in the fourth quarter, but not in the direction everyone expected.
Ben Smith received a yellow card for a dangerous tackle after 58 minutes and the Wallabies scored two attempts to close things out at 21-17. Still, even though the Wallabies scored two attempts while Smith was off the field and closed the gap to just four points, there was never a sense of panic from Hansen. He knew McCaw was at the zenith of his powers and calmly, with 15 men back on the field, he would get everyone back to the task at hand. He knew the ball was dominating, that the All Blacks were in control of the break and when Carter hit a 40-meter drop goal after 69 minutes to restore the lead to seven and Hansen’s face appeared on the big screen as he navigated the ball. through the posts, and the world was staring at a coach who knew his team had won.
“The World Cup in 2015 was a tournament that went as planned and I think the result was quite special for rugby because I don’t think too many tournaments have been won by many points scored by either team. ,” he said.
“And that final game was a pretty good soccer game. Australia wanted to play and we wanted to play so you played a good game and it was an accumulation of each week that was done well and winning World Cups, that’s what has to happen, but it was a really nice tournament. 2011 was tough because we had to win it and everything was done when it was over. But this one was nice throughout the entire process. Dad didn’t get a chance to tell me ‘go win the World Cup in 2015’. I just expected it. I didn’t have that little moment right after the final that I did in 2011 thinking about mom. When I pondered it later, I could have said that [my wife] Tash, ‘It would have been nice if the old man had been here.’
This is an edited excerpt from Steve Hansen: The Legacy by Gregor Paul (HarperCollins NZ, HB) RRP $ 50 (NZ) $ 45 (AUS), available now
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism