Rugby Union: Hart the soul of his party

Tim Glover finds the All Blacks' leader using attack as best means of defence
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The Independent Online
On the surface, dressed in denim shirt and jeans, he looked as casual as Marlboro Man. But John Hart's trigger finger was itchy and when the opportunity arose, he couldn't wait to draw. "I'm incensed," he said, "by the accusation of cheating."

Hart wasn't about to throw in his tin badge but nor would he let an allegation that, somehow he had produced an ace from beneath his sleeve, pass without a challenge. "At no stage have we transgressed," Hart said. "Everything we've achieved has been within the spirit of the laws."

The scenario was underwritten by an article from a former England forward headlined, "England and referee conned by All Blacks". The cutting was pinned to the noticeboard in the team room and filmed by a television crew for consumption in New Zealand.

Following the victory over England at Old Trafford last week, the All Blacks were accused of deliberately killing the ball and wilfully conceding penalties in order to frustrate England. Compared to the saloon bar mayhem surrounding some of the previous All Blacks tour, this was small beer.

However, it had been a stressful week and in any case, Hart took it as a personal insult. "This is very sad," he said. "The All Blacks play the game the right way. We do not go out to spoil. We have a very positive approach and anybody who knows us will tell you that." By way of an example, he cited the All Blacks' baggage master. "He's very upset," Hart said, "and he's English."

The All Blacks have always been adept at turning defence into attack and Hart did just that, seamlessly changing the subject from the "cheat slur" to the punch thrown by Martin Johnson on Justin Marshall.

"If one of our players had done that we'd have been pilloried out of the game," Hart said. In a spot-the-punch competition, Hart was one of the few live witnesses and, after consultation, was content to accept England's punishment on Johnson, a one-match ban which meant the Lions captain missed the game against South Africa at Twickenham yesterday, but will almost certainly be back for round two against New Zealand next Saturday.

"There is no doubt that if it had gone to a judicial hearing Martin Johnson wouldn't be seen for a month," Hart said, repeating his description of the assault as "outright thuggery".

Clive Woodward, the England coach, said that Johnson would be making an apology to Marshall which came as news to the scrum-half. "I have not heard a word, Bishop," the All Blacks acting captain, said, and he was not referring to the fact that the punch affected his hearing.

One of the striking differences between Woodward and Hart is that the former, new to the job, was leaping around like a demented salmon whenever England did something praise- worthy. It made a refreshing change at Old Trafford from watching Alex Ferguson chewing the cud.

Hart, on the other hand, no more wears his heart on his sleeve than he would use it to conceal a Deringer. "He presses all the right buttons," Sean Fitzpatrick, the elderly warrior, said. "He works people up very well and gets the best out of them."

Mike Banks, the manager, said: "John is a brilliant communicator and motivator and he combines that with an acute rugby brain. He's a first- class tactician."

The baggage man, Graham Short, who has been looking after the All Blacks' kit since 1973, concurred. "Unlike his predecessors, he doesn't talk down to people," Short said. "He even offered to visit my home club of Swanage and Wareham."

Hart, who had been a scrum-half with Taranaki and Auckland, finally got the job that, in terms of importance, is only a couple of notches below that of Prime Minister, two years ago. "I guess I'm proof of the adage that if you try, try, and try again you might finally get there," he said.

Hart was appointed New Zealand's first professional coach on his 50th birthday after previously losing out to Alex Wyllie in 1988 and Laurie Mains in 1992 and 1994. A national selector for four years, and the inspiration behind Auckland's unprecedented success, Hart's mission was a return to the style that brought the All Blacks the World Cup in 1987.

"I'm a great believer in playing in a way that maximises the skills of the team and maximises the presentation of the game to the public," he said. Out went the scowl - except, when the haka was being gate-crashed - in came the smile and Hart was more aware than most of the new demands of professionalism. "It is essential," he said, "to produce a competitive global game in order to attract media and sponsors."

It is not surprising that people like Fitzpatrick and Banks praise Hart's man-management skills. For 30 years he was human resources director of Fletcher Challenge Ltd, one of New Zealand's biggest companies. "The job entailed planning, managing people and motivation," he said.

Hart will need all his business skills this week to prevent the encounter against England from turning into a grudge match. "We didn't play as well as we'd like at Old Trafford," Hart said, "but then England didn't allow us to."

One thing is certain. Should the All Blacks lose by three tries to one at Twickenham, as England did in Manchester, you will not see them doing a lap of honour. Nor will you see a repeat of the nose-to-nose confrontation in the haka. "I won't allow it to happen," Hart said.