A wall of the Welsh Rugby Union training quarters at the Vale of Glamorgan is decorated with large photographs of players that are accompanied by key words: trust, honesty, togetherness. On a portrait of Graham Henry, looking beleaguered against the elements of a spiteful day, is the message: pride and passion. The former Wales coach had both but it wasn't enough.
Henry left his post after the débâcle against Ireland in Dublin. He had had, he told those close to him, a "gutsful". Henry had already appointed fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen as his assistant and so the man who had great success with Canterbury has, with indecent haste, inherited one of the most difficult assignments in the game. Hansen knows he has the job until the end of the Six Nations but what he doesn't know is what will happen after that.
If Wales, once again in turmoil with the players threatening to go on strike (most observers thought they had already withdrawn their labour in the match against Ireland) emerge from the Championship with credit, will the WRU continue to pursue their shortlist of candidates or will they promote the caretaker Hansen? "I'm not sure,'' he said, "and it's not something I'm losing sleep over. I've got a job to do. Anybody would like the opportunity of coaching at international level.''
When Wayne Smith – he was once a Canterbury stand-off and Hansen was at centre – vacated the job of coaching the All Blacks last season, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union told Hansen to apply. The temptation to do so must have been huge but Hansen had accepted Henry's offer though nothing had been signed. "You have to stand by your word. I could have stayed in New Zealand for a bigger piece of cake but that would have meant letting people down and I wouldn't have felt happy about that.''
Even so, Hansen admits there have been times when he's wondered whether he had made the right move. "It wasn't after the game against Ireland,'' he said, "but after the defeat to Argentina in Cardiff. I thought, 'What have I let myself in for?' I had just left a team that had 16 All Blacks and was pretty special. After the initial shock I realised I had a challenge to meet. Rugby is in trouble to the extent that there are only four or five teams in the world of genuine calibre and we need more. Wales should be up there because rugby is the country's national game.''
Even if he has the inclination, Hansen does not have the time to dabble in the politics of Welsh rugby. Henry, the Great Redeemer, had his own vision of the way forward and Hansen, the Canterbury Crusader, has similar thoughts. "Whether we have three professional teams or 10 we have to have a structure in Wales that leads to competition for places. From junior rugby upwards we need a development programme that produces not just clubs of quality but coaches, trainers and managers. At the moment the competition is weak and the players are spread too thinly over too many clubs. People are getting away with bad habits and the basics are very poor.
"We've got to learn to walk before we can run. People know how I feel about it but I don't have a say. I'm getting paid to coach. I just hope common sense prevails and that the WRU comes up with a formula that is best for Welsh rugby. We need a salary cap and players with a genuine desire who earn the right to be in the team. We can't have people with excuses.''
Given his situation, Hansen has any number of excuses but he won't be making them. He has quite enough to think about trying to prepare his squad for next Saturday's encounter with England at Twickenham. On the same day his wife Jill – they have two young daughters back in Christchurch and a three-year-old son in Cardiff – is due to give birth.
Hansen has only been to Twickenham once before. As a member of the touring NZ Combined Services here in 1992, the one-time policeman took time out to watch the Varsity match. "I'm really looking forward to going back there. It's what it's all about. It will give us a chance to see where we fit in the puzzle. I respect England and they have got a lot of quality players but I don't fear them. A lot of favourites have been beaten. The key thing is for us to put into practice what we've been working on.''
Hansen is aware that while losses to other nations may be painful to the Welsh, defeat to the English is an almost life threatening experience. "It should be a great occasion. This is the local derby, big brother against little brother.'' Like Henry he is learning the words to the Welsh national anthem. "It is not the easiest language to throw your tongue around but the players have been helpful.''
Hansen and Henry keep in touch although that is going to be more difficult in the future. Henry returns home in June to become coaching resource manager with Auckland. "When Graham left the job we had a little chat. He's still there for us and if I need advice I only have to pick up the phone. We are both passionate about rugby and we'll always talk about it. I'm my own coach but I don't disagree with what Graham was trying to do with Wales.
"You have to have a system in which you know where the ball is going and the opposition doesn't. All the successful teams in the world have it. Graham's success rate was about 60 per cent and that's pretty good and on top of that he came within a whisker of leading the Lions to victory over Australia. The reception the crowd gave him when he was a spectator at the Italy game was superb. It was a true reflection of how they felt about him. He worked tremendously hard and he can look in the mirror knowing he did the best he could. He can walk away with his head held high.''
As Henry had enjoyed success with Auckland, so Hansen did at Canterbury and another mentor is his father Des who has spent much of his life in a coaching role. "He has a real passion for the game and has had a tremendous influence on Canterbury rugby and me,'' Hansen said. "I respect the way he thinks about the game. We'll get him over here in the near future.''
Under Hansen – he is 42 and retired as a player in 1992 – Canterbury won the NPC in 1997 and 2001 and the Super 12 in 1998, 1999 and 2000. "Steve's innovation was way beyond anything that we'd seen in New Zealand during the last four or five years,'' Brian McLean, the Canterbury assistant coach, said. "We played a style that was quite different and Steve was the catalyst for that. "He's got a fantastic appreciation of both forward and back play. Some administrators and players have felt his wrath at times but it was always well founded. He's very loyal. The players knew that he was honest with them and while they might not always have liked what he had to say they became better players for it.''
Canterbury did not have the problems that are besetting Wales and whether Hansen will have time to complete the job he has started remains to be seen. "I like what I've seen and I enjoy the company of the people I'm working with. I've got a good feeling about it."Reuse content