Rugby Union: Henry and the Black arts

Wales' expensive import realises his duty is to bring southern comfort to the Principality
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After watching his first few games in Wales, the thought might have crossed Graham Henry's mind that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. "I was a bit astounded at the standard," he admitted. "It looked like Third Division stuff." Henry has five years to revive a cause that appeared to have fallen into terminal decline.

Wales were in trouble before the Big Bang of 1995 and the consensus since professionalism is that the situation has gone from bad to awful. However, the losers have appointed a winner and rarely have so many placed so much faith in one man. To cap it all he's a Kiwi. "It's a major challenge," Henry said. "I know it's not going to be easy but the people have been superb. It's stimulating. Frustrating at times but stimulating."

The last time Henry was in the Principality he was coach of New Zealand schools and they lost to Wales 9-8 at Cardiff Arms Park. "The boys here are no different to those at home," Henry said. "A lot of them are very talented. They would be good players if they were handled correctly." What Henry has discovered since succeeding Kevin Bowring as coach in August is that almost nothing has been handled correctly; the structure has to be dismantled from top to bottom. "Some of the kids are playing 90 games a season and they are sick of it. Everybody wants the talented player. In New Zealand he wouldn't play more than 25 games."

Henry has been putting himself about, visiting places that have never seen a Wales coach. "Players are being paid even in the lowest divisions and for some it's their only source of income. It's ludicrous. I have come across clubs who have to pay a pounds 50 win bonus to the players and they are worried about winning. I've seen Under-13 and Under-14 teams that can't play because they can't find a coach. You'd have thought one of the fathers would volunteer."

Henry, Wales' 13th coach in 30 years, has spoken to Bowring, indeed he took him along to the Welsh Rugby Writers' Dinner. "Kevin didn't have to talk to me and I appreciated that. I have great sympathy for the guys who have been and gone. They had inadequate preparation. The WRU has to sort itself out and quickly."

Henry's job, of course, has not been made easier by the decision of Cardiff and Swansea to play against English clubs rather than their own. Henry couldn't possibly comment but he would learn a lot more from watching Cardiff against Richmond than Newport against Caerphilly.

"Players have moved from Wales for a better quality of rugby. It's very important that the clubs and the WRU travel the same road. The Super 12 in the southern hemisphere has led to an increase in ability of as much as 40 per cent. To be competitive we'd need to play at a much higher level on a regular basis. Look at Australia. It has only three professional bases, New South Wales, Queensland and ACT, and 90 players and they are the second-best side in the world. We need a structure in Wales that is similar."

If Australia are the second best, South Africa, who have won their last 13 games, are currently No 1. Wales, who conceded 96 points to South Africa in the summer, meet them at Wembley on Saturday. It sounds like a case for the League Against Cruel Sports. Henry won't look at videos of previous Welsh performances.

"Because of the structure my predecessors were in a no-win situation. I have got time to put it right." Whether he has had time to prepare for the Springboks is another matter. "I know there are going to be occasions when I get my arse kicked and mentally it's going to be hard to handle. I'm used to winning. It's easy to blame the players all the time but the foundations have been very creaky. My worry is that the game against South Africa is too big a step. I'm not going to put pressure on the team by saying we're going to restrict South Africa to X points. I want them to play with pride and I want the Welsh people to be proud, and if we can achieve that it'll be a good start."

Wales have injuries, little strength in depth - "we have a skeleton," according to Henry - and a southern hemisphere referee at Wembley. "I'd much rather one from the northern hemisphere. They are defender-friendly. The southern guys are attacker-friendly and there's much more flow to the game. A lot of players here aren't used to that."

Henry didn't get where he is today by being in charge of teams that are slaughtered. He had great success with Auckland and New Zealand "A". Since taking over from John Hart (the current All Blacks coach) in 1991, Henry's Auckland sides made 22 successful defences of the Ranfurly Shield and won the Super 12 in 1996 and 1997. A lot of people, including the RFU, were interested in Henry. Why would the 52-year-old former schoolteacher throw up the chance of coaching the All Blacks and opt for a country that, in rugby terms, had plummeted to Third World status?

"The New Zealand RFU told me I was next in line but there were no guarantees I'd get the All Blacks job even if I deserved it. The other candidates were ex-All Blacks - I wasn't. Even though I was born a South Islander I was considered an Aucklander and there's a lot of hostility towards the city. Had I stayed I might have got the job. Who would have thought the All Blacks would lose five in a row? But if I didn't get it I'd have been a bitter and twisted old man." When Henry announced he was leaving New Zealand, the NZRFU said that in future no overseas coach would be considered for the All Blacks post. "It was a new clause in their constitution," Henry said. "If a player leaves he's out in the cold for a few years. I got life."

It took two months of courting from the WRU, a contract said to be worth pounds 1.25m and the freedom of Wales to convince Henry it could be an equitable life in the land of the long, dark cloud. "I not only have the opportunity to coach a national team but to work at the whole development. It's a total deal. England and France are way ahead of everybody else in Europe and we don't want the Five Nations to become a waste of time. I didn't come here to be a scapegoat and I'm sure the WRU wouldn't have appointed me if they weren't going to take note of what I'm saying. I've got five years and two World Cups and if that isn't enough I should be shot."

He has introduced a code of conduct, has hired the fitness expert Steve Black from Newcastle, has the squad training indoors at an equestrian centre - "no more running through the crap in weather as cold as hell" - and has changed the players' contracts. "They are common for all, not just the privileged few. I want an environment in which all the players have to do is think about playing rugby. No excuses. My job is to pick the best team and I have total freedom. I could pick an Eskimo if he was Welsh."

Henry is two months into his reign, almost two months into Welsh rain. "The weather's a negative but there are plenty of positives. I have been welcomed throughout Wales. I had a good feeling very quickly. They are good people, very similar to New Zealanders. When I started to coach the players I realised they had real ability. It would be fascinating to see them in the context of the Super 12. I think they would emerge as some of the best players in the world." This is welcome news, but news all the same, to the people of Wales.