With ‘Spygate’ hitting the headlines, it’s not just alleged members of New Zealand’s coaching staff who have been paying close attention to Eddie Jones this week. The eyes of the world have been on the England coach as he prepares for the Rugby World Cup semi-final by employing his latest brand of mind games in the build-up to Saturday’s match.
But his New Zealand counterpart, Steve Hansen, has remained unfazed by accusations of espionage, taking them in his stride as he prepares one of the greatest sporting teams of all time for yet another tilt at rugby’s greatest prize.
“Eddie and I both know that all is fair in love and war, and Eddie knows that in a time of war you throw out a bit of distraction for you guys to deal with,” Hansen told journalists ahead of the clash in Yokohama.
At this point, Hansen has seen and done pretty much everything the sport has to offer. In his 105 matches as the All Blacks’ coach, his side have incredibly lost just nine times, a record that seemed almost impossible when he took the job in 2011, and was even more improbable in August 2003.
Back in those days, Hansen was in charge of a Wales side which had lost 10 games on the bounce, including every game of a dismal Six Nations campaign, and his job was on the line heading into the World Cup in Australia. With just Scotland to face before the tournament kicked off, he faced a barrage of criticism for picking a whole host of fringe players but his response was defiant, blasting: "I'm confident I'm a good coach."
Wales beat Scotland and would make it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup before Hansen moved on to join the All Blacks as their assistant coach. He headed back to his homeland having left the Welsh in a good place, with former number 8 Jonathan Thomas singing his praises for the work he achieved behind the scenes:
“When Steve does interviews he can come across as quite stern and cold. But he actually cares an unbelievable amount about his players, and you can really feel that. He is a really loyal person. If you put the work in and do a job for him, he will reward that loyalty.”
As Graham Henry’s right-hand man he helped New Zealand end their 24-year wait to reclaim the Webb Ellis trophy in 2011. And when Henry’s contract expired following the 8-7 World Cup final win over France, Hansen was the obvious choice to take the reigns.
Even given their position as newly-crowned champions and considering the depth of quality available to Hansen, it was difficult to imagine the incredible success the Kiwis have gone on to enjoy under the 60-year-old. His 3-0 series win over Ireland in 2012 was a sign of things to come, with the All Blacks going through the whole of 2013 undefeated. The message written on a dressing room whiteboard by Hansen after their demolition of England that year simply read:
“We are the most dominant team in the history of the world.”
By the time the World Cup came around in 2015, there was little doubt which side would come out on top. Hansen led his side to a second successive title, overcoming South Africa and Australia at Twickenham in the semis and final respectively, playing some thrilling rugby on the way to glory.
During that World Cup win, legendary centre Ma’a Nonu made his 100th appearance for the All Blacks and Hansen’s comment on one of his star men resonated with every Kiwi:
I was never good enough to play for the All Blacks. I’d give up everything I’ve done in coaching to play one game. And most people would say I’d be lucky. He’s played a hundred.
Four years on, his stock continues to rise. His 87.5% win record is the greatest ever compiled by an All Blacks coach overseeing 15 of more games. At this rate he could continue in the role for 15 or more years.
This weekend will see two of the best minds in sport collide as Eddie Jones and England look to prevent New Zealand making it an unprecedented three World Cups in a row. Jones, a master of the mind games, has already been stoking up England’s billing as the underdogs ahead of kick-off.
"It's the two heavyweights of world rugby - one dressed in black, the crowd favourite, the nation's favourite, the other in white, probably the most disliked team in the world.”
That line in itself is a testament to the quality of Hansen’s men. Great teams or individuals in sport at the top of their game are often hated by the wider public, see Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, Lewis Hamilton or Australia’s great cricket sides of the past.
However, true greatness transcends sport when the whole world falls in love with the talents of an individual or team. Roger Federer, suave, sexy and bloody brilliant at tennis is universally adored. We may never see another phenomenon like Usain Bolt - everywhere he raced people were desperate to see him win.
Now Steve Hansen is taking his wonderful New Zealand team to that same level, exhibiting every bit of the relentlessness which has been the hallmark of sporting greats over a number of decades. Right now, his team look about as unstoppable as any sports outfit on the planet.
A win over the All Blacks would be remarkable for Jones’ England. But, whatever the result, one cannot help but marvel at the dominance of this great side, under the leadership of the best head coach in the world of sport.