WELLINGTON: Steve Hansen's legacy as one of the best All Blacks coaches of all time has been cemented before the World Cup but if his side clinch a third successive title in Japan he is almost certainly going to be bumped up to 'The Greatest'.
The 60-year-old Hansen is stepping down after the tournament, his fourth with New Zealand and fifth overall.
Having taken Wales to the quarter-finals in 2003 he joined Graham Henry's All Blacks coaching staff in 2004 and helped lay the foundations for an unparalleled run of success.
Of the 204 tests Hansen has been involved in, 101 as head coach and 103 as an assistant, New Zealand have won 176 and lost 24, with four draws.
They have won 11 of 16 Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship titles, two World Cups and retained the Bledisloe Cup each year.
Hansen's winning record as a head coach runs at almost 90 percent having won 88 of his 101 matches in charge and been named World Coach of the Year four times.
Only Fred Allen, who was in charge from 1966-68 and won all 14 of his tests, Alex Wyllie, who won 25 of his 29 matches from 1988-91, and Henry have success rates over 85per cent for All Blacks coaches who have been in charge for more than 10 matches.
Hansen had originally planned to step down from the role after the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, reasoning that the players might have begun to tune him out.
After discussions with a number of senior players, however, he chose to stay on until after the tournament in Japan.
Speculation then began to circulate last year that he might continue on for another World Cup cycle, but he ended those water cooler conversations last December.
"I'm finishing," Hansen told a packed news conference in Auckland, that was live streamed by all of the major media companies in the rugby-mad country.
"I just think that after 16 years it is the right time to move on after the World Cup. It is the right thing for the team.
"Fresh eyes, fresh thinking and I think that will be great in the enhancement of the legacy of the team."
Fresh thinking is what has characterised Hansen's tenure, where he has pushed players to continually challenge themselves and to rise to his expectations.
His eye for talent spotting has also been unrivalled, making some left-field selections that at times forced the public to scratch their heads and ask 'Who? Huh?'
Despite showing extreme loyalty to his players, and receiving it back from them, he has also had no qualms about dropping them.
His biggest bombshell came last month when he dropped test centurion tighthead prop Owen Franks, who had been the cornerstone of the All Blacks scrum since 2009.
Hansen felt with the dry, warm conditions expected in Japan he needed ball-handling props who were as comfortable running in the open as they were doing the hard work in the tight.
"We believe the game requires us to have big mobile (props), and in this case we just think the other guys we have named are more so than he," Hansen said at the squad announcement.
"Therefore, we had to make a tough decision."
Just another example of Hansen's belief in fresh eyes, fresh thinking and the right thing for the team.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Ken Ferris)