Rugby Union: Broken Hart on the big screen

Rugby World Cup: All Blacks' coach faces humiliation as his new- age side prove a soft touch when the going gets tough
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The Independent Online
JOHN HART suspected his position had become untenable following the rout of the All Blacks by France at Twickenham last Sunday, and what happened in Cardiff on Thursday confirmed he would have to go sooner rather than later. Whenever Hart's image appeared on the giant video screens at the Millennium Stadium during New Zealand's dogfight with South Africa the Kiwi supporters, en masse and spontaneously, booed him.

This was the man who confidently expected to be lifting the Webb Ellis Cup at the same ground yesterday, with possibly a knighthood as reward for making New Zealand World Champions, something they regard as an inalienable right. Instead he fell on his sword, the morning after the defeat to South Africa which left New Zealand fourth placed and having to qualify for the next World Cup which they co-host with Australia in 2003.

"That was a small dent compared to Sunday," Hart said. "That was quite a shattering defeat." To recap, when Jonah Lomu scored his second try against France shortly after half-time, the All Blacks led 24-10 in their semi-final and all was right with the World Cup, until the French scored 33 points and the north and south islands of New Zealand disappeared under a long black cloud.

So shattering that one university is offering grief counselling. "It can have a far reaching effect on the nation's psyche," said a spokesman. "The team represents the self-worth of the country."

Hart, who is due to take a holiday in Hawaii after the tournament, will fly home first to meet his grief-stricken critics. "I understand it's been traumatic. It's highly important to face the public about what has happened."

So what has happened? In 1987 the All Blacks duly won the first World Cup but were in purdah four years later, failing to reach the final, which was won by Australia. Hart took over in 1995 when Lawrie Mains stepped down after New Zealand were beaten 15-12 in the final by the Springboks.

Hart, New Zealand's first professional coach, was the assistant to Alex Wyllie in 1991 and the two men could hardly have been more different. Wyllie was a grizzly from the old school, where the only real men were All Blacks and public relations was for politicians. Hart, who had been an executive in charge of employee relations at one of New Zealand's largest companies, transformed the team's image and style, promising rugby that "maximises the skills of the team and the presentation of the game to the public.".

With the retirement of Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce, the conversion was almost complete. Taine Randell, the new captain, was no Fitzpatrick. Quietly spoken and intelligent, Randell, a graduate of Otago University, was ... too nice. Sponsored by Adidas and packaged by Saatchi & Saatchi, the new New Zealand were approachable, friendly and ... too nice.

They didn't have players sent home for assaulting hotel bouncers, but when the going got tough last Sunday, the tough were nowhere to be found. Back home, about the kindest thing they could say about them is that they played like a bunch of prima donnas.

The impression that the All Blacks could win the cup was strengthened when they beat England at Twickenham, thanks to a fantastic try from Lomu. For the knock-out stages, instead of staying in a hotel in Slough, they insisted on returning to the five star Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey where the facilities included archery and shooting and where their only neighbour was Prince Edward.

On the 120-acre estate, some of the front-line forwards were filmed, not smashing into tackle bags, but sipping wine for a food programme. To their critics it was food and wine.

Before the debacle against France, Randell - he was 25 on Friday, the day Hart resigned - had said they were not over-confident. "If we are not 100 per cent things can go badly for us," he said. "On their day the French can wake up and play outstanding rugby." Yet the feeling remains that, as good as France were, the All Blacks were not prepared for a battle. Extremely fussy about where they lay their hat, they had gone so far as to check on the standard of the hotel they would be staying at in Cardiff, provided they reached the final. In the event, of course, it was subsequently occupied by the French.

And that's not all. Before facing the French they were assigned the home dressing room, something they had never used before. They wanted the away room, which they had occupied before beating England, but their request was rejected.

"The All Blacks probably thought they were going to win simply by taking the field," Graham Henry, Wales' New Zealand coach, said. "After Lomu had scored a couple of tries that nobody else could have scored, they believed that things would look after themselves. Like everybody else in the world they underestimated France. The French have had a very unsuccessful year and had nothing to lose. They were apprehensive at the start, got better as their confidence grew and by the end the All Blacks were humiliated. There is a huge depression in New Zealand. Four years is a long time to wait."

By normal standards, Hart's record - 32 victories from 42 Tests - is commendable but there is nothing normal about coaching the All Blacks. While Hart's name is being linked to Italy - not Elba but the national Italian job - there is speculation that Henry, whose five-year contract with Wales expires at the end of the next World Cup, could be lured home. "He'll certainly not be the man to take my place," Hart said. "He has made his choice."

Hart's contract expires next month and it is possible that Mains, who coached the Golden Lions to Currie Cup success in South Africa, could be recalled. Whatever, the timing of Hart's resignation will not have been appreciated by the organisers of the World Cup. It would have been better for all concerned if he had waited until the tournament was over.

"My time is up," Hart, flanked by his wife and daughter, said. "I have been considering the decision for some time. The loss to France was devastating, the most devastating of my career. I still wouldn't have changed anything going into the game but I'm still sure we had the right players here. I hope the flak is not directed at the players. They are the future of the game and have done their best." In New Zealand second best is nowhere near good enough.

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