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SportsSeptember 13, 2015

Rugby: Patrick Gower Finds a Sensitive New Age Shag

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Toby Manhire watches All Black coach Steve Hansen give an interview of surprising emotional honesty.

There was a wee outburst of online anger when The Nation announced its star interviewee was Steve Hansen. But I’d wager that, had they stuck around, even those who have no appetite for rugby whatsoever would have found something remarkable in Patrick Gower’s extended conversation with Steve Hansen.

I watched in the Green Room with the other panelists yesterday morning, cricket legend turned Rugby World Cup 2011 maestro turned Duco executive Martin Snedden, RadioLive political editor Jessica Williams and incoming Green MP Marama Davidson.

We were all transfixed by it – not so much the rugby specifics, though in truth there wasn’t a lot of that. What was fascinating was the personal frankness and emotional language. Hansen used the word “love” 13 times – and this wasn’t love of an inanimate object, not “I love rugby” sort of thing, nor a throwaway gung-ho, “jeez I love those guys”, but heartfelt love for his team of colleagues, the “family”, the “brothers”.

Gower picked up on the love motif. “Using that word to old-school All Blacks or old-school New Zealanders might seem a little namby-pamby in some senses.”

Hansen: “Oh, it may seem namby-pamby to some people, but I know that to get the best out of these people and, again, I refer back to your family, like is it namby-pamby to love your own children and love your wife? I don’t think so. So why would it be any different when you spend a lot of time together and some of those times are heart-wrenching, some of them are great experiences, and I just see it as just a natural progression of being together, and they’re a group of brothers, and it’s about sharing those intimate moments from a sporting environment and you become closer because of that.”

All Black coaches have a tradition of talking like ventriloquists. I don’t mean that in a puppet-master way – it’s just that they prefer not to move their lips when they speak. Hansen remains true to that heritage – he could never be accused of mellifluousness. But he is nevertheless transformed from the perma-scowling man who coached Wales and terrified junior reporters as Graham Henry’s assistant.

In response to a question about motivation, Hansen said this: “I’m a very, very competitive person. You know, I love debating and having discussions. And when I was younger, I was probably an average human being because of that, because I’d lose sight of, actually, this is just a discussion; it’s not a competition. That took a while for me to learn that and probably hurt some people along the way, but – So I love winning.”

Gower: “How did you hurt people?”

Hansen: “Well, New Zealanders are great at putting other people down. You know, some of us are quite sharp with our tongues, and you hurt people’s feelings by smacking them when – I don’t mean physically but verbally because you’ve outwitted them, but you walk away feeling pretty good about yourself because you’ve won that argument, but really you didn’t. You lost. You know, you lost somebody. So once you learn those sorts of things, I think that’s a little easier to understand compassion, I guess.”

It would be interesting to know, as The Nation executive producer Tim Watkin observed after the show, what someone like All Black coach of yore Alex “Grizz” Wylie would make of Hansen’s emotional openness and reflections of self-discovery. Grunt dismissively? Nod quietly?

The most interesting response in the Green Room, meanwhile, came from the person with the least interest in rugby. Marama Davidson said she was generally put off by the sport and the circus around it, but seeing Hansen speak like that changed her mind a bit.

And if the All Blacks are a lens through which New Zealand refracts, for better or worse, the ideas and reflections, and palpable absence of bullshit machismo that shone through, is something to celebrate.

Unless we lose in the quarter-final.



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