Hansen: we want to be great like Spain's football side
Watchful eye ... Steve Hansen ate All Blacks training at Latymers Upper School in London. Photo: Getty Images
Steve Hansen is perfectly content to let others judge whether the All Blacks team he is fashioning might just be the best team rugby has seen, but there was a 40-minute spell one Saturday afternoon in Soweto, in September, when even he was left utterly spellbound by the ethereal level his charges seemed to be reaching.
"The previous week we'd won in Argentina before crossing all these time zones to play South Africa," the New Zealand coach said. "We'd struggled in the first half [and were 16-12 down] but then in the second half, when we really had no right to because of all the travel we'd done, we just changed gear and took off.
"It was like a training run. Things just clicked - bang, bang, bang, everything worked. It wasn't easy but it looked it, like when you're watching a Pele or Maradona, a Dan Carter or a Messi, when they've got so much time and everything seems so simple. It was like the game was in slow motion and we were in control of it."
Error-free, dazzling counter-attack, 20 unanswered points. Supreme.
When Hansen, as assistant, had taken over from the revered Graham Henry as New Zealand's coach following last year's World Cup triumph, he could have been forgiven, like whoever succeeds Sir Alex Ferguson, for feeling completely daunted and believing the only realistic route was down. "But I didn't see it as a hospital pass. To coach your own country is a huge honour and very humbling," Hansen said. "But with it come expectations that 'you better do this right'."
Well, he has. Soweto confirmed it. Hansen not only scooped up that pass around his ankles but has made a searing run towards creating a legend of his own. World Cup-winning teams traditionally break up or dive into a post-euphoric slump. Yet his side are scaling new peaks; victory on Saturday would complete an astounding year of 13 Tests wins and one draw, taking their unbeaten streak to 21.
So routinely now, Hansen is asked if they are the best ever - as Lions coach Warren Gatland is the latest to declare - and he simply responds that "it's not for us to determine - all we can try is to be better than we've been before.
"We know it takes one thing to change opinions about us. Take this week. We let ourselves down with Andrew Hore's mistake and all of a sudden, people's perception changes. We are just looking every week to do the best we can."
The mark of the greatest sports teams is consistency of excellence over a sustained period. To that end, Hansen, seeking to make New Zealand the first back-to-back World Cup winners, is taking inspiration from the Spanish national football team, who have now won three major championships in succession.
"International sports teams struggle to keep having great, great, great performances and Spain are probably the only one recently. Clearly, they are doing something that makes their players want to be great every time they play. That's what we're trying to do, be as good as we have been, if not better. It's not so much that we've studied the Spanish team as studied the concept [of maintaining excellence]."
In the Olympics, for instance, Hansen wanted to understand the harsh lessons learned by the New Zealander Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the dominant US women's volleyball team. "They went undefeated through the round robin, beat the other finalists, never lost a set, but they lost the final."
Hansen wondered if it was about complacency, with the voice of an imaginary "little man" insidiously telling them they were so superior they did not have to prepare with the thoroughness they actually needed.
"That's where Richie McCaw is really good for us. He controls that 'little man'. He answers, 'I've got to prepare bone deep every time'. That's why he's so consistent."
Hansen says the captain's rigour rubs off on the newcomers being channelled into the squad through the New Zealand Rugby Union's high performance programme. They, in turn, put pressure on and energise the established stars. Continuity, competition and fun reign. "It's amazing how well the lads come straight in and fit in. They're a new breed of athlete," Hansen said.
Hansen thinks back fondly to when he was eight, watching his favourite All Blacks team on TV, the mighty 1967 side. With his father Des, a much-respected coach who died last month, he would gaze awestruck at colossal customers such as Brian Lochore and Colin Meads and even now imagines how great it would have been to see their skills and aggression "transplanted into this era of rugby".
So he will make no grand claims for his own team over the 1967 outfit or the first world champions, who went a record 23 Tests unbeaten between 1987 and 1990.
Still, the thrilling thought about the All Blacks of 2012 - or despairing for the pursuers - is their potential. "I really do think we can get better," Hansen mused. "There are one or two things we've got in our back pocket that we want to start working on next year." Goodness, it sounded ominous. That Soweto master class? Perhaps we have seen nothing yet.
The Telegraph, London