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Hansen has high hope as All Blacks coaching tenure nears end

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — As the focus of the earnest hopes of a nation which venerates sporting achievement, All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen insists "I'm just a normal bloke." It falls to Hansen to attempt the unprecedented feat of guiding New Zealand to victory at a third consecutive Rugby World Cup.

It's no small matter in a nation where stock markets can fluctuate on the success of the national rugby team, and where elections can be influenced by the feel-good factor of a World Cup victory. Hansen was referring specifically to the adoring reception he has received from Japanese fans since the All Blacks' arrival at their World Cup base, not to his standing among New Zealanders. Rugby is New Zealand's national game, and its obsession, but it celebrates high achievers without deifying them.

Hansen's standing and the scrutiny his decisions and public statements receive is more in keeping with that of the prime minister; every aspect of his stewardship of the All Blacks is news and the subject of exhaustive public debate.

"You can't be in avoidance of it, you've got to live normally and I've tried to do that from day one," Hansen said. "As an All Black coach you're under scrutiny, but I've tried to live a normal life as much as I can.

"People care, they have high expectations and those high expectations I think drive the high internal expectations as well." After eight years as head coach and 15 years as a member of the All Blacks coaching staff, Hansen remains a popular public figure. Success helps: as an assistant to Graham Henry he helped guide New Zealand to a drought-breaking World Cup victory in 2011, and as head coach he led their successful Cup defense in 2015.

His overall record is extraordinary: the All Blacks have won 88 of 101 tests with Hansen as head coach and he has been World Rugby Coach of the Year on four occasions. The World Cup in Japan will be his last duty before he relinquishes the role and, despite all his previous successes, may define how his tenure is judged.

The All Blacks start their campaign against South Africa on Saturday in Yokohama. Many aspects of Hansen's time in charge are unquestionably positive. He helped break down the formerly hierarchical nature of All Blacks teams, giving a leadership voice to all players regardless of seniority. He created an egalitarian locker room in which veterans shared daily chores with newcomers.

He ended the closed shop nature of the team, opening the squad to "apprentices" — young players identified as future All Blacks who were able to train and travel with the squad. At first he recognized that he had at his disposal the most talented players in world rugby and he gave them unbridled license to use their talent — to "play what's in front of them" on the field. That meant players were able to extemporize, to take chances without being accused of departing too far from the team playbook.

That approach allowed players such as Beauden Barrett to flourish and give full vent to their skills. Barrett became a two-time World Rugby Player of the Year and Hansen's team produced some of the most exhilarating rugby the world has seen.

A former police officer who played rugby to top provincial level, Hansen is a straight-talker with a wry, laconic wit. He has made news conferences illuminating where previous coaches treated them as among the least favored of their duties.

He enjoys bantering with reporters, often meeting a question with a question of the "what would you have done in my place" sort. He ushered in an era of transparency which opened the inner workings of the All Blacks team to public gaze.

Hansen can be defensive, but that's hardly surprising; having produced such an exceptional winning record doesn't shield him from probing questions and open criticism after a defeat. In the coaches' box he exudes a poker-faced sense of calm.

More recently things seem to have changed a little. Hansen's selections have appeared less consistent, more reactionary. He has shown fierce loyalty to some players, trusting them to play their way back into form when their performance seemed to have deteriorated. At other times he has summarily dismissed a player after one chance.

His tactical approach seemed to become more prescriptive and the players' freedom to innovate more restricted. That may simply be the result of a tactical evolution or recalabration in the face of opposing defenses which aim to stifle the All Blacks' attacking game.

If so, Hansen has the chance to answer his nation's pleas, to sign off at the World Cup, on rugby's biggest stage, with a performance which crowns a great coaching career.

More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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