Rugby Union: Henry rocked by the reality

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GRAHAM HENRY, whose arrival in the Principality last October was greeted with an optimism which soon turned into almost evangelical zeal, might be tempted to visit Lourdes en-route to Paris this week. Nobody gives the man from Christ-church a prayer on Saturday when Wales, already bottom of the Five Nations, play France. Henry never promised them a rose garden but a wooden spoon is something else.

The union had been blessed, and the post-honeymoon romance exceeded expectations with a close call against South Africa and a win over Argentina. When Wales lost to Ireland last week, having been beaten by Scotland, the Viagra turned to Valium at the drop of a goal and a country's hopes, however unrealistic, were scattered to the winds like so much confetti. "I guess I was dreaming if I thought I could realise their potential straight away," Henry said, days after the second wheel had fallen off the bandwagon. "Week in, week out 90 per cent of our players are involved in an inferior competition."

The frustration of Henry, who is unaccustomed to defeat, became apparent. "I feel I'm doing all the coaching things that should be in place well before the players get to international level. I'm doing a job that an elite league should do."

By the time Wales' comeback against Ireland had petered out, questions were being raised, not just about the defeat but its manner, and with an indignity belonging to the rudely deprived. Mervyn Davies, one of the towering performers from the 70s, said: "Welsh rugby is in such a state that I do not expect to see us win another Triple Crown in my lifetime."

Few can win at international rugby without a sound source of primary possession, nor can they expect to survive in a harsh climate with one line-out jumper. Whether or not Craig Quinnell is too heavy to lift, the burden on Chris Wyatt was intolerable. "Wales threw at Wyatt 95 per cent of the time," Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, said. "We had four or five options."

Wales won set-piece ball on only 18 occasions compared to Ireland's 29. But the Welsh handling was so inept that of the 26 scrums, Ireland had the put-in at 19. Both Ireland's tries came from Welsh possession. Some things, like a chronic inability to retain possession and the production of more turnovers than Mr Kipling, are out of Henry's hands. "We had a tendency to self-destruct," Henry said. "We were the architects of our own defeat. We are trying to play a certain type of rugby which requires ball retention. There were some positives. We played very good football in patches but we need to do it more consistently. The talent's there."

Welsh indiscipline - seven penalties conceded in their own half, David Young and Craig Quinnell cautioned - allowed David Humphreys to settle his and Ireland's nerves. The fact that Ireland emerged as saints was a big psychological and tactical victory for Gatland. "I told the players that if they weren't prepared to turn the other cheek and take a punch they had better look for another team," Gatland said. "You want to be aggressive but there is a fine line between that and foul play. We kept our discipline." Henry's view is that by "losing our cool," Wales lost any sympathy from the Australian referee Scott Young, whose decisions were "understandably affected."

With goodwill hunting replaced by a search for scapegoats, Robert Howley, the captain, and Neil Jenkins have both come under fire. Howley's error of judgement in running a penalty at Murrayfield contributed to Wales' defeat to Scotland while Jenkins' charged down kick at Wembley cost his side seven points.

The fact that the stand-off plays very flat enabled Humphreys, his opposite number, to get to him. If the handling was poor, the passing wasn't much better and again the alignment was a factor. Henry might tinker with the pack, bringing Andy Moore into the second row and switching Wyatt to the back row, but he likes his half-backs.

Would Howley be a better player without the captaincy? "You can ask that question of any captain," Henry said. "He's young and he's got to be given a chance. As for Jenkins he's one of the best pros in the side. He's totally dedicated. OK, there are one or two little mistakes from time to time but if I had 22 Neil Jenkins' in the team I'd be a happy man." He wouldn't lack for a goal kicker that's for sure.

Ireland survived a response in the second half that saw their lead cut from 26-6 to 26-23. It was Gatland's first Five Nations victory. "Ireland had never held such a lead before and we stopped playing," Gatland said. "If we're in that situation again we've got to be more ruthless."

He and Henry, New Zealanders recruited to sort out problems in a way a Texan might be asked to put out an oil fire, compared notes afterwards. "I felt a bit sorry for Graham," Gatland said. "There were such huge expectations with people, even some players, talking about the glory days of Wales again. It was not his doing. I would not like to be in that position."

The last thing Henry needs is sympathy although, in his job, it goes with the territory. He may have been caught on the rebound from New Zealand but he could not have known he was entering into a blind date. But, when you are paid handsomely, the big bucks stop at your desk.

"At the moment the Welsh Premier League is well below the standard required and even Cardiff and Swansea's matches with the English have lost their bite," Henry said. "We are trying to hone skills and attitudes without the benefit of a back-up system. We need a proper structure below international level. People have to sit round a table, compromise and fix it. This is a critical issue. If it is not resolved we might as well pack up and go home."

No can do. Apart from a tour to Argentina and the little matter of the World Cup, Wales, having lost to the two 50-1 shots, now meet the favourites France and England. "One or two wins would make life easier," Henry said. "We'll have to do what we can with our little team."