David Kelly: 'Battle of the bosses'

“It’s good to be a little frightened. It’s good to respect your opponent. It keeps you sharp. In the fight game, the head rules the heart. But in the end the heart is the boss.” – Bryce Courtenay

A rarefied place in posterity beckons for one of two men who have carved, from the most unassuming beginnings, indelible imprints as coaches.

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Each stands upon the brink of an ending, propelling them another bold step towards conquering the world.

But, for the other, the sense of that ending will be as instant as the cold blade of a guillotine; a reminder that nearly all coaching careers, however fruitful, are resolved in a certain degree of failure.

“Come the final whistle one team will go right and one will go left,” says Steve Hansen, the man in the black corner, seeking to balance the ledger in his brief, but intense, personal rivalry with his compatriot Joe Schmidt.

“I don’t really enjoy it because it’s difficult,” says Schmidt, ever keen not to be side-tracked by wasteful walks of distraction.

Jeopardy

“They’re good guys to have a drink with afterwards. It’s a bit of double jeopardy. They’re smart coaches and so you’re trying to think about what they’re going to bring, how they’re going to try to manipulate us.

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“At the same time you’re trying to devise strategies based on what you’ve seen of them and – knowing them personally – how you think you can try to manipulate them.”

Characteristically, this reveals more of Schmidt’s head than his heart and Hansen has already tried to exploit his opponent’s legendary attention to detail; “Joe does a lot of study, so that can be strength and weakness. Maybe we can set him up.”

Today’s 80 minutes will decide who can edge that battle. One they have waited all their lives to wage. And after the thousands of miles they have travelled and years of coaching experience between them, such a little thing could make the difference.

They are the same but different; Schmidt from a tiny village on the North Island; Hansen hails from a bustling suburb outside Dunedin on the bottom tip of the South. Schmidt was a teacher; Hansen a policeman; each in their own way a career of instruction, discipline, and humility.

In school, Schmidt’s teacher described words as “windows to the world and to what people are thinking”. He has loved words ever since; he taught English and remains a voracious reader; it would not be surprising were he to turn to Bryce Courtenay this week as one countryman plots against another.

Hansen’s profession was hounded by perspective. “It hurts to lose a game of footie, but it hurts a lot more to lose someone you love. Or to tell someone they lost someone they loved.”

Their boyish dreams were coloured black; those of Schmidt, who recalls running barefoot around the Waikato wilds as a four-year-old, were ruined by injury at 24, Hansen’s ability never matched ambition. “I was never good enough,” he has said. “I would give up my entire coaching career; just to have played once.”

They were both three-quarters; Schmidt’s famous try for Manawatu against the French is preserved on YouTube; Hansen, whose father Des was a renowned coach, was a modest performer at Canterbury.

Both men would travel overseas as young men; Hansen, without a word of French, to La Rochelle; Schmidt, without a word of English as spoken in Ireland, to Mullingar.

They would soon devote their energies to coaching but now could never again play; Hansen staying in Canterbury, the family’s new home, and forging his name there although never becoming a head coach.

Schmidt remained at home too; beginning with the schoolboys at Palmerston North, then later to the pro game in the big city, Auckland; thence to France and a fateful return to Ireland.

If it seemed like he was always one step ahead, well maybe it’s because he was. Shane Ratima played in the school side coached by a 29-year-old Schmidt.

“I never had him as a teacher,” he told us this week, “but you could see he was a great one for he was an awesome rugby coach. He treated us like equals. He’d a great rapport with us. He’d give us nicknames and everything. And such imagination! He’s coming up with these freak moves 20 years ago!” Ten minutes later, he calls back. “I have to tell you he was before his time. He was analysing opposition at lunchtime. Stuff you’d never heard of.”

In his early adult life, Hansen struggled to evoke such empathy; policemen don’t have to talk as much as teachers; and when they do, it’s not always soft talk. “You need to know your own identity. I wish I’d known that when I was 20. That it wasn’t just about me as a player. I was a brother and a son, later a husband. There are different parts. Sometimes because they don’t know who they are and who they want to be.”

Hansen, 60, is the elder of the two by six years; contentment seemed to find him late; after all, he was 45 before he got his first head coaching job. He also has two failed marriages behind him.

Establishing his own sense of self helped him pass on the wisdom. His first World Cup in sole charge – 2015. A captain, Richie McCaw, projecting outward indomitability but inward uncertainty.

“I’ve only one worry about this World Cup,” the coach tells him in an English courtyard.

McCaw: “Really?” “Yeah. That you’re the one guy who can cock this up!” Hansen told McCaw he was trying to do everyone else’s job because his own meant so much. He needed to trust everyone around him more.

Irish players have told numerous tales such as this in the nine years since Schmidt decamped to these shores, of how he has extracted more from them than they had ever previously thought possible.

Both men have had to dig as deeply inside themselves, too; and yet the more they know about themselves and their players, the more sport reminds them that nothing is guaranteed.

“I know it may sound bizarre, but being so close to the team, I’m not necessarily any more aware of or any better at predicting how the team will go than you are.”

Jarring

It’s a flash of jarring vulnerability that Hansen shares, too. “Some days you lose and you ask what did we do this week? If we genuinely did it right, well then there’s another good team on the planet. If we didn’t, well then we have to fix that for next time.”

Hansen had to do all this after the Chicago coup but he knew the reasons why; his squad were distracted and so they returned to Dublin and bullied Ireland to victory.

Schmidt had his own lesson to absorb following his first months in charge, plotting a path from the agonising 2013 defeat to Soldier Field in 2016. His side hadn’t trusted each other in 2013 when he picks out seven errors in those fateful final 100 seconds. “That’s what it takes,” he tells them.

Schmidt edges the rivalry now but it is but one forged on a kinship that belies the public jousting and perceptions; Schmidt is not always as cuddly as the projected image; neither is Hansen as gruff or austere.

They genuinely get on well with each other; this is not Eddie Jones versus Michael Cheika. But the stakes could not be higher today. Neither man can afford to think of an ending because the one they truly want does not include defeat.

“He’s a home-town hero,” says Rattima of Schmidt. “And not just here. He’d probably be first in line to replace Hansen. But if not now, he won’t say no to it forever.”

Until that time, both men have unfinished business to take care of.

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