Rugby Union: Enigmatic Mains remains positive: New Zealanders expect the All Blacks to win every time, so the current coach's record of 11 victories in 16 matches hardly impresses the Kiwi fanatics. Steve Bale met the man in the firing line

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The Independent Online
PEOPLE do not gladhand you even when you win if you are the coach of New Zealand - it is something to do with the Kiwi's sense of divine right about his rugby team - and that makes Laurie Mains a special kind of masochist.

The All Blacks' 15-9 defeat by England has been greeted with frenzy back home and if Mains's team happen to fail against the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park tomorrow the knives may be out. The tourists leave on Sunday and barely a week after he gets back to his home outside Dunedin, the annual election by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union council in its full panoply will take place.

As All Black coach since 1991 Mains, 47, is at once a figure of profound respect and the most targeted Aunt Sally in all of rugby. He, above anyone including the players, shoulders the back-breaking weight of public expectation, an obligation which I would suggest no English coach has ever been asked to fulfil. A few Welsh coaches would know the feeling, though.

'At the time I accepted nomination I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what was expected of me: that I do carry the expectations of the total rugby public of New Zealand - which is the majority of the people,' he said. 'I had to believe in myself, or I wouldn't even have stood. But having said that, the only thing that matters in my perception is what is best for the All Black team.'

It has been anything but plain sailing. Mains saw his task as clearing out the old guard who had taken New Zealand ingloriously, unsmilingly through the 1991 World Cup. Only four of those who faced England when the tournament opened survived to make last Saturday's return visit to Twickenham.

This is a risky strategy and five defeats in 16 Test matches under the current coach is an unacceptably modest record to many New Zealanders. Mains, on the other hand, is in no doubt whatever that that change - a catharsis almost - was essential.

'You have to be realistic about this thing,' he said. 'Nobody and no team wins all the time irrespective of whether the opposition is better or worse. We lost the game last Saturday and we are very, very aware of that, but those people who are honest would see us for what we are at the moment.

'We have introduced 18 new Test players over two years; that's unprecedented in All Black rugby. We stuck our neck out to bring a lot of new players on this tour, very clearly with a view to finding some for the 1995 World Cup. But then our problems were exacerbated when Michael Jones was injured, we lost Robin Brooke, and suddenly we had seven players who had beaten Australia in July who weren't available to play the Test match over here.

'It was largely a new team and then we lost Matthew Cooper, who was so critical. The balanced people of New Zealand rugby do take these things into account; that's not an excuse but it is a reason for it being more difficult for us. But by the time we get to the World Cup these players will have matured considerably and the All Blacks will be a very strong team.'

Mains has to hope so, anyway. If anyone is aware of criticism, whether from a hostile press in Britain and more particularly Australia or in New Zealand, it is the All Black coach, and even the long apprenticeship of nine years coaching Otago did not quite prepare him for the endless round of mutual suspicion and sometimes complete exasperation.

'I said publicly in my first year that if I felt I wasn't up to it or not doing the job I planned, I would walk rather than be pushed. I don't have an ego, but I've given this job everything I've got and done it in the most honest way I could. I've virtually ceased employment; I have a building company that I've put on remote control and is managed by my staff, not myself.

'It obviously helps if people pull together but you'll never get that. You'll never get consensus and it's a matter of doing the best you can towards consensus without compromising any aspect of selection or the playing of the game. I was well aware of this situation before I ever put my name forward.'

As of now, Mains is not even certain he wishes to carry on when the NZRFU council meets, though he confesses in that enigmatic way of his - an Australian newspaperman once called him 'the man with the Mona Lisa smile' - to being 'pretty positive'. It may be like a drug to Mains but one suspects that Dick Best could not possibly tolerate being the public property as England coach that Mains is as New Zealand coach.

'When it gets to talk-back shows or the less-than-quality written media, you wouldn't last five minutes if you took it seriously,' Mains said. 'Most of the critics who produce the trash that comes out aren't close to it and don't know what's going on or what the players think about it and don't understand how difficult it is to achieve things against good opposition.'

If this sounds defensive it is in the sense that Mains is of necessity forever having to defend himself. He may even be striving to fulfil as a coach that which went unfulfilled as a player. He is known to rugby folk in these islands as the left-footed, toe- poking full-back who displaced the fabled Fergie McCormick for the last three Tests of the 1971 Lions tour after Barry John had kicked McCormick to distraction in the first.

That the Lions won the series scarcely helped the Mains chance. He won only one more cap and that was five long years later, against Ireland, though he did make the subsequent All Blacks tour of South Africa - the one that sparked the boycott of the 1976 Montreal Olympics - without reaching the Test side.

These frustrating experiences taught Mains that no one in New Zealand rugby, least of all the coach, will satisfy all the people all the time. The best you can do is persuade the majority to go along with you. 'We have a percentage of the most supportive people and they back you whatever you do,' he said.

'There's a percentage at the bottom who aren't supportive no matter how well you're going because you're not the guy they wanted in the first place and they will never admit you're doing a good job. Then there's a huge group in the middle that come and go according to your performance.' After England, presumably they have gone.

In terms of pressure and pain, the nearest equivalent in our domestic rugby is Alan Davies, the Wales coach, and I wonder what he would have given for 11 victories in his last 16 games? 'I haven't got the ability or strength of character to bear the whole burden of the Welsh nation,' Davies once said. Mains would sympathise, except that as All Black coach he really does have to bear the whole burden. Or carry the can.

(Photograph omitted)

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