Steve Hansen doesn’t shirk the tough calls

If you’re an All Black waiting to hear if you’ve made the World Cup squad, the one name you don’t want to see on your mobile phone is Steve Hansen’s.

All Blacks coach Hansen always takes it upon himself to be the bearer of bad news, which meant this time he had to have 12 difficult conversations.

After the drama of the last World Cup, when the All Blacks ended 24 years of pain to win the prize again thanks to an excruciating 8-7 final victory over France, the recent squad announcement for the 2015 tournament was hyped in New Zealand like never before.

Players and media were warned by Hansen beforehand that some talented individuals would miss out on the 31-man squad, which served only to ramp up the drama a little more. In the hours before the 6.30pm announcement in Wellington on Sunday, August 31, national media staked out the capital’s airport in order to get an idea of which players would be present.

One-test wing Waisake Naholo, thought a doubtful inclusion due to a cracked leg bone suffered in his last test in July, was one of those present in the arrival hall to pique the interest of the media, with Israel Dagg and Cory Jane two high-profile casualties.

For Hansen, it is the hardest part of the job, but it’s one which he refuses to shirk — he gives manager Darren Shand and assistant manager Gilbert Enoka the job to break the good news.

“I made 12 phone calls,” Hansen said. “These guys have worked their butts off to try to make this team and some of them have played a lot of test matches. Izzy’s been around a long time and so has Cory... that’s a lot of service, and it deserves to be done with a bit of dignity and the nice thing was they were in a safe environment — in their place of choice. It wasn’t a long conversation, it was more, look, ‘here’s the news’, and done as nicely as we could do.”

Most players sought the support of family during the morning of the fateful phone call. Naholo, the Highlanders flying wing who went to his homeland of Fiji to seek out a traditional remedy for his broken fibula in the weeks before, was at home in Dunedin with his brother. When he saw Shand calling he thought it was bad news.

Loose forward Liam Messam, who suffered the heartbreak of missing out on the Cup squad four years ago, was at home trying to catch up on some sleep following the birth of his week-old son.

“Berty kept ringing my phone — I only had a few hours sleep because the newborn has been keeping us up,” he said. “I had my newborn in my arm and I answered the phone and Berty told me the good news. It was a pretty excited household for a good hour before the sleep deprivation jumped back in.” Hooker Dane Coles, the All Blacks No 1 hooker, was a little more relaxed — he was driving and had to pull over to take the call.

And fly-half Beauden Barrett was at his parents’ Taranaki farmhouse surrounded by his three sisters and three of his four brothers. Barrett, the Hurricanes player equally talented at fullback, said he missed three calls before ringing back manager Shand.

“My phone was on silent and I was watching the Ireland v Wales game which was on at the time — so it was a rookie mistake. We had a big cooked breakfast. I think mum and dad were more anxious than I was. Once I told them the good news mum got out the Champagne and got into it. I think they were still going strong late last night.”

The selection of 24-year-old Naholo, a try-scoring machine for the Highlanders this year as they took out their first Super Rugby title, has caught the imagination in New Zealand. He will miss the All Blacks’ first game of the tournament against Argentina due to his injury but the fact he is even going has been described as a miracle.

A cautious Hansen said he kept an open mind on Naholo’s treatment in Fiji, but the reality is the player’s return is broadly line with with what the team’s medical staff expected.

Skipper Richie McCaw, who played the entirety of the last World Cup with a broken foot, said: “It’s just awesome that he got himself right and gave himself the opportunity.”

While the selection of Naholo and other players considered to be on the fringe such as Colin Slade and Nehe Milner-Skudder were the positive stories, McCaw, like Hansen, was mindful of the ones left behind. “You feel for them, absolutely... I think there’s been a bit of anxiety across everyone because you certainly weren’t assured of anything,” said McCaw. “Unfortunately that’s the nature of what we do. You can’t pick everyone.”

For Barrett, it is clearly a dream come true. Dad Kevin, a former loose forward who played 169 games for Taranaki, is likely to travel over for the tournament and will base himself in Ireland, where he has many friends.

The family lived in the country for 16 months between 2000-2001 when Kevin managed a dairy farm there, and Beauden played Gaelic football and rugby and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Beauden is aware of the rise of Irish rugby, and the fact the All Blacks could meet them in a quarter-final in Cardiff. “Two years ago when we played them they were very strong. They’ve been a force for many years now so if that happens and we meet them in the quarter-final... I’m sure we’ll have our work cut out because they’re a quality side.”

For Barrett and his team-mates in the squad, the anxiety is over for the moment. For Hansen, the tough calls remain. The next time he faced the unlucky few — Dagg, Jane, et al — it was to tell them to stay focused and prepare as if they could be called up at any stage due to injury.

It was a longer conversation and it would have delivered hope — a feeling many New Zealanders are clinging to as they prepare for another roller-coaster of emotion.

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