‘We’re just ordinary people who can play rugby reasonably well’, says New Zealand coach Steve Hansen

There was a beautiful episode during the post-match celebrations on the Twickenham pitch which told us much about the 2015 All Blacks, a little cameo which informed us that as well as being the most brilliant exponents of the game that rugby has yet to witness, they possess that same rare champions’ class off the field too.
‘We’re just ordinary people who can play rugby reasonably well’, says New Zealand coach Steve Hansen

An exuberant young kid called Charlie Lines had bounded onto the pitch to get close to his heroes only to be smashed to the ground with unnecessary zeal by a security guard. A shocked Sonny-Bill Williams helped pick him up, gave him a hug and walked him across to see his parents in the crowd.

Then he slipped off his winner’s medal and draped it round Charlie’s neck. The kid’s face was a picture of stupefied joy.

“I felt sorry for the little fella….Well, better that it hangs round his neck than on my wall,” Williams shrugged later.

Good for Sonny-Bill, that most wondrous and singular of talents. And good for this splendid class of 2015. Coach Steve Hansen reckoned they had not just wanted to win the World Cup; they had wanted to win friends too.

On both counts, they succeeded spectacularly. Few teams in any professional sport, remember, ever have to face the constant pressures they must shoulder today. The point about the All Blacks of the amateur era was that they did not just have to represent the people of New Zealand; they themselves were the people, be it farmers or labourers, bankers or schoolteachers.

For a while at the dawn of the professional game, that connection was lost. The complaints were that aloof young, rich players cocooned in a super-slick, shiny adidas world seemed to have lost touch with their people.

Graham Henry started the conscious effort at reconnection. “I want our players to make sure people who come into contact with the All Blacks enjoy themselves and get something out it,” the old guru preached when guiding them to the 2011 title.

Hansen took that gospel abroad here, spreading the word from London to Cardiff to Newcastle, and it can only have helped that in the rugged leader Richie McCaw and the Beckhamesque star Dan Carter, he had two on-field leaders as humble and grounded as they were brilliant. Their team reflected their values.

“Beforehand, we said ‘let’s enjoy it’,” Hansen explained. “We wanted to be able to leave this country with people understanding we’ve got some good values, we’re not bad people to be around. We thought moving round a lot was a big advantage for us, that if we were lucky enough to get here and do ourselves proud, we’d have some extra friends.

“And I think that might be the case. I think a lot of people have realised we’re not the big,bad ogres we’re sometimes printed to be. We’re just ordinary people who can play rugby reasonably well.”

I followed these gentle giants a lot in London and witnessed anobject lesson in making a charm offensive seem effortless. During their stay in the leafy Thames-side suburb of Teddington, for instance, they won over all and sundry, whether it be spending hours satisfying every autograph request patiently or organising a raffle for hotel guests and then playing table tennis with the young winner.

When they went north, nearly 5,000, featuring many kids, turned up at Darlington to watch them train and do a Q&A session.“Every time we get a chance to show what the All Blacks are all about, we want to take that responsibility,” Kieran Read explained. The striking thing was that, throughout the tournament, they really did make these outings seem like something to enjoy and not a chore.

To Hansen, much credit must go. He may look like a gruff, dour soul but his down-to-earth air comes packaged with a nice line in humour. Life, he reckoned, was too short not to have some fun.

“If you’re serious all the time, it would be pretty boring.” And this lot were never boring. They were exhilarating. It felt like Hansen had created what Williams called a “brotherhood” spirit in a relaxed environment where dazzling players were encouraged to express themselves and embrace the pressure, not be suffocated by it. The result was a joy. Here was a team that ran in 39 tries in seven games, who achieved one night of almost perfect mastery against France, who could offer a magical offload as easily as they could offload a medal to an open-mouthed lad. Young Charlie Lines wasn’t the only one who got a bit star-struck, you know. These matchless All Blacks made disciples of us all.

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