Rugby Union: Henry the Save the Wales campaigner

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The Independent Online
WALES'S FASCINATION with their rugby coach, Graham Henry, will reach its next crescendo this week even before he sends his team out to open the rugby World Cup against Argentina on Friday. Apart from the reverence that will, as usual, be accorded his every utterance in the local newspapers, he is the subject of two long television documentaries that will help lather up the Welsh for the battles ahead.

These fly-on-the-wall, ant-in-the-pants, earwig-on-the-collar studies of the inspirational New Zealander just about complete the most thorough examination of a newcomer even a nation as nosy as the Welsh have undertaken. The only possible exploration left is for the media to accompany an angioscope trip through his arteries.

After his amazing transformation of the Welsh team, it is not surprising that such intense curiosity exists or that its pursuit is so relentless. It may be taking too outrageous a liberty to suggest that an event as mighty as a World Cup could be subordinate to a sub-plot but the welding of the relationship between the Welsh and Graham Henry is a piece of bonding like nothing rugby has ever seen and if the team's improvement continues over the next six weeks the marvelling will consume other countries, too.

The first of the documentaries goes out on BBC Wales on Wednesday night and follows Henry's recent return to New Zealand with his wife, Raewyn, to see family and friends, give away the pets to good homes and visit his former club the Auckland Blues. To the constant cries of: "When are you coming back?" he gave the steadfast answer that he would see out his five-year contract with Wales.

The reporter Bob Humphrys and the film crew spent the entire 10 days with the Henrys and the result is a compelling insight into the man. And if it gives a telling analysis of what makes Henry tick, an hour-long documentary the next night provides some dramatic examples of how he makes the Welsh team tick. S4C's production reveals how the Henry inspiration machine has worked its wonders on Wales. Their cameras were allowed to follow him and his squad behind the scenes as Wales pounded their way through the eight-game winning sequence that has brought them to the threshold of the World Cup with a better chance than anyone thought possible.

Henry's dressing-room approach - "This is a bloody Test match and we're going to bloody win it" - may lack the exhortational style of another Henry but its effect is hypnotic on the viewer, never mind on those upon whom his glaring eyes are trained.

Although they were obviously planned separately, the two films are so complementary they could be watched one after the other without any sign of overlapping and it is remarkable how cool and willing Henry is about revealing his feelings. Humphrys has a simple theory about it. "He thinks we're all mad; quite potty with the sort of adulation we've given him. He doesn't dislike the attention, he just thinks we're crazy."

Only once have I seen a nation in this state of unfettered awe and that was the Republic of Ireland when it fell under the spell of Jackie Charlton. The parallels are not quite exact. Wales have enjoyed previous incarnations as a first-class rugby force while Ireland had never approached the heights to which they were driven by Charlton. There was another slight difference. Both coaches came from a foreign land and whereas there have been occasions when the Welsh have regarded New Zealand as a natural enemy - motivated by fear and awe rather than any hatred - there is no comparison to how the Irish regard the English. But if Charlton had the bigger barrier to break down, and he didn't carry a Henry-sized reputation into the job, the rapid success of neither could have been anticipated.

There is also the shared ability to unearth fresh countrymen. Charlton might have created more Irishmen but Henry hasn't finished yet and significant increases in the population can be confidently expected. Watching a team being rescued from oblivion - a task that Bobby Robson may yet shine at with Newcastle - is one of sport's most fascinating sights and Henry's is at the stage where even he does not know where it is going to end.

Recognising at an early stage that he was in a country that can go from fraught to hysteria in 60 seconds, Henry has constantly cold-blanketed the successes. "Don't get excited," he kept telling the nation as the victories started to build up. He admits that his attempt at being a stone- faced spectator is difficult.

His expressions when Scott Gibbs scored the try that led to the 32-31 downfall of England in Wembley in April are a joy to watch. At the end of the game he flicked a finger across his eye. "A tear?" asked Humphrys. "Don't be silly, it was dust," snapped Henry. He doesn't intend to go native just yet.

Just as interesting as the powerful vibes that rebound between Henry and his players are the supporting relationships built up by the motivator Steve Black and the captain Robert Howley. Black, who organises their physical and mental preparations, was previously with Newcastle. He has the looks of a Pavarotti and the voice of a Gascoigne and walks around the dressing-room declaiming to no one in particular. He has an extraordinary influence over the squad. "We are living out the people's fantasies," he tells them.

Any more fantasies like the ones the Welsh have been experiencing and the rest of Britain might have to be given some insight into what can be done by those who know what they are doing.

ANYONE WHO has thrown a party to which very few have turned up will know how the Welsh are feeling as they enter the week of the rugby World Cup. Be sure that the passion for the proceedings will have been never bettered by any host country for any world cup but as the opening ceremony nears there's a disappointing lack of anyone to practise hospitality on.

Everyone knew that the qualifying groups were going to be shared among the Five Nations, as they were when England were hosts 1991, but it is a shame that the organisers couldn't arrange an eve-of-tournament gathering of all 20 competing nations.

Apart from giving it a worldly flavour from the outset, the players would have felt more involved. As it is, over half of them are likely to return home without coming within 100 miles of Wales. A glimpse of the opening ceremony on television is poor compensation.

And far from the hordes of expected visitors, only a trickle are arriving. I hope the Welsh haven't cut too many sandwiches. The teams in their group do not have mass followings. Samoa are being accompanied by 50, Japan by 500 and Argentina by 1,500. It is not known how many of them are actually staying in Wales. The Japanese squad, for instance, are basing themselves at Cheltenham, which has hitherto not been noted for its Welshness.

Although Cardiff is the venue for one quarter-final, the place will be deserted for the semis which are both being held at Twickenham. Apparently, this was England's price for supporting the Welsh bid. If Wales get that far, it is possible we will have the peculiar situation of the host country playing England at Twickenham; a particularly galling prospect considering that not only have the Welsh built themselves a new home that is worth six points' start but they will have to appear in a stadium that is very much old millennium.