Rugby Tests, as much as any sport, are won just as much off the field as on.
And the build-up between the two coaches leading up to the opening Test of the 2017 British & Irish Lions and New Zealand series today in Auckland has added another tantalising angle to a contest that has already captured the attention of rugby fans – and non-rugby fans – across the globe.
Usually for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen it’s a no-contest with the World Rugby Coach of the Year in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, and 2015 Rugby World Cup winner, wiping the floor with his opposite number. But Lions supremo Warren Gatland has given as good as he has got so far on this tour, even edging the battle as the first Test drew near.
In person the two men are remarkably similar, despite the fact the playing style of their teams are world’s apart. Both men hail from rural New Zealand – Hansen from the tiny hamlet of Mosgiel near Dunedin and Gatland from Hamilton on the Waikato River.
As you would expect from two men of farming stock they don’t mince their words, although Hansen clearly enjoys a joke more than his opposite number.
Hansen’s tongue is often very firmly in his cheek when he faces the media, enjoying some playful jibes, while Gatland will sit glowering in silence before lobbying a few pre-planned verbal grenades.
One such “grenade” saw Gatland complain about NZ teams “blocking” off kick-chasers prior to the Chiefs match, a match which saw them being rewarded with a crucial penalty for that exact offence Hansen was more than miffed, firing back that Gatland was “bullying” the match officials.
Clearly Gatland was getting under his skin. Hansen’s considerable influence had been preempted.
As coaches they are also similar, with both choosing the style that best uses the resources of their respective playing groups.
With his talented, mobile squad Hansen plays an open, high-tempo game, regularly blowing opponents off the park with their breath-taking pace and skill.
Gatland doesn’t have anywhere near those resources at his disposal, so with these Lions he has employed a limited form of physical chess, box (kicking) his more skilful opponents into a corner and then smothering them with powerful set-pieces and lightning line speed in defence.
To date it’s working with the Lions being one offload and an extra metre on a goal kick short of being undefeated after six matches. But Gatland has edged Hansen before, especially on the field where the two provincial players met in the NPC back in the 1980s.
Gatland had an outstanding career with Waikato, playing 140 matches from 1986 to 1994 which led to him going on to play 17 non-Test games for the All Blacks. Hansen’s playing days were far more scratchy, playing just 20 matches at centre for Canterbury from 1980-87, where he was best known for “organising the defence.”
Both men have also coached Wales, where again Gatland has a superior record. Hansen won just 10 of his 30 matches in charge of the Dragons, and oversaw a run of 11 consecutive defeats.
Gatland’s record has been far more impressive, winning 47 of his 93 Tests in charge and claiming Six Nations’ titles in 2008, 2012 and 2013 – successes that saw him appointed as Lions coach.
Of course, Hansen has a line on his CV that Gatland would dearly love – All Blacks coach – and this series marks the 53-year-old’s best chance to get it.
If Gatland can pull off the near impossible and win the series it would be hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, coaching achievement of all time – and the door would be open for him to take over the ABs when Hansen steps down at the end of the 2019 RWC.
It would also mark the beginning of the decline of this All Blacks squad.
But if the Lions fail to win the series, or worse still, are embarrassed, then the NZRU will follow the succession plan already put in place by Hansen, with assistant coach Ian Foster taking the reins post Japan 2019. However if Gatland’s team deliver for him today, then Hansen will be forced to give his old sparring partner even more respect – and maybe even get ready to give him his job.
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