Rugby Union: Henry's experiment with reality

Rugby Union: Wales' new coach faces his first taste of competitive action against formidable South Africa today
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The Independent Online
By Chris Hewett

IT WILL, of course, be entirely ridiculous, not to say blasphemous, to worship Graham Henry as the Great Redeemer should he inspire his red- shirted flock to a first-ever victory over the Springboks at Wembley this afternoon. He would be worthy of a title far more grandiose; God would sound about right. After all, this small, dapper, middle-aged New Zealander has been asked to create a whole new world from the dark void known as Welsh rugby and while no one quite expects him to complete the job inside seven days, instant success would ensure one heck of a Sabbath tomorrow.

Not that Henry is wholly sold on the Welsh Rugby Union billboard campaign that, even before his first Test in charge, has taken the liberty of portraying him in a distinctly celestial light: "Anything to get the crowd singing, I suppose," was his less than enthusiastic response this week. Twenty- eight years of the richest coaching experience the game of rugby union has to offer has taught the six-figure-salaried messiah that it will take more than a piece of advertising smart-arsery to tempt the choirs of hill and valley back into full voice.

It is difficult to sing anything more uplifting than a funeral dirge when your once proud nation has lost its last two major Test matches by an aggregate score of 147-13, and Henry makes no secret of his displeasure at the fixture schedulers who contrived to award him an international coaching debut against the very world champions who stuck 96 excruciating points on his new employees less than five months ago.

"What we really needed was a couple of rehearsals," he said after a squad session at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens, just a well-struck Neil Jenkins kick away from the site of the new Millennium Stadium, centrepiece of next year's World Cup extravaganza. "Believe me, the Springboks are no one's idea of a rehearsal. If anyone represents stone-cold reality, they do."

The reality for the 52-year-old former schoolteacher from Auckland is that his 10-week honeymoon with the Welsh public could be history by 4.30 this afternoon. Another humiliation, inflicted on something bearing a far closer resemblance to a full-strength Red Dragon outfit than the rag, tag and bobtail lot saddled with Mission Impossible to Pretoria last summer, would remove some of the Henry sheen for sure. The new coach can talk as good a game as the next man, but this is no time to be shouting the odds.

"I always go into a game expecting the ultimate because any coach who doesn't do that should get the hell out," he asserted before leaving for London on Thursday. "But your definition of the ultimate is governed by your particular circumstances. I think we've made a good deal of progress together since I took over the job in August, but I can't hope to understand the exact scale of the task without watching the blokes play. A first- up game with the Boks is not exactly what I'd have chosen but at least I'll get an idea of our deficiencies.

"All I want from this weekend is some real passion, some real guts and for the players to do the things they've been told to do. Total commitment, total concentration. That's the deal. I can't quantify what I'm looking for from this game in terms of points on the board, or even in terms of victory and defeat. Perhaps that's why I'm nowhere near as nervous, as cranked-up, as I usually get before a big one. There's an excitement inside me, of course - it's my first international match, the realisation of a dream I've cherished for nearly 30 years - but to be honest with you, I'm generally in a far worse state than this."

For all his generalisations, his understandable reluctance to talk specifics at so early a juncture, one or two illuminating truths can be drawn from Henry's first selection. If his predecessor, Kevin Bowring, attempted to "Welshify" the national team by reinstating the bold attacking traditions of the long lost Edwards-John-Bennett era, Henry is trying to "worldify" it with a dash of international realpolitik.

Quicksilver, imaginative, mercurial whippets like Arwel Thomas and Gareth Wyatt have been thrown to the four winds. This Wales, Henry's Wales, is all about size and strength and physical presence... or at least, as near as he can get to it.

"You might see it that way, but I wouldn't necessarily agree that there is any particular philosophy attached to my team selection," he shrugged. "The way I look at it, a coach picks his best 15. Really, it's that simple." Which it quite obviously is not. If that were the case, any mug could do it. And Henry is not, by any stretch of the little grey cells, a mug.

He first turned to coaching while his playing career was still a going concern - "I was a pretty average outside-half playing pretty average rugby down in Christchurch when it struck me that I'd go further off the field than I could hope to go on it" - and by 1971 he was in charge of the rough and tumble at Auckland Grammar School. He paid his dues with the local colts and student sides, earned his stripes with the provincial B team and finally took over the whole Eden Park shooting match in 1995, leading the Auckland Blues into the inaugural Super 12 competition the following year.

"You ask me whether coaching Auckland, with all those great players, was like falling off a log compared to Wales? Well, it was different, I'll admit. But it didn't run itself, that team. Some of the top guys were going down the far side of the mountain and had to be replaced and while we were introducing new blood, we always knew that the expectation, the assumption, that Auckland would win was constantly growing."

Auckland did win under Henry. They won heaps. In the 1996 Super 12 they scored 70 tries in 13 matches, at an average of more than five a game, and put 45 points on a vintage Natal side in the final. They triumphed in 1997, too, and it was not until this year's climax against Canterbury that they lost their first tournament game on home soil. Throw in the odd National Provincial Championship title and endless Ranfurly Shield defences and you have a culture of achievement that could not be more dissimilar to recent Welsh experience if it tried.

Which is why England went after Henry in the summer of last year, only to cock up the negotiations so spectacularly that they became the laughing stocks of the northern and southern hemispheres simultaneously. Was Henry ever close to a Twickenham deal? The eyes narrow suddenly: "I spoke to one or two of the English top brass, that's about all," he says. "I don't think we need go into it further."

OK, OK. What about the decision that did bring him to these islands, then? The word in New Zealand has it that with the All Blacks going down five-zip to Australia and South Africa during the summer, a brief pause for thought would surely have seen John Hart heading for the job centre and Henry on the All Black throne. There go those eyes again: "Maybe, maybe not. Who knows what would have happened? I certainly don't. I wanted to coach at international level and Wales gave me a wonderful opportunity. I'm here and I'm in for the long haul. It's an extraordinary, exciting challenge. I couldn't be happier."

And the folks back home in New Zealand? How happy are they at the loss of a world class coach? Henry is back on terra firma again, smirking mischievously out of the side of his mouth: "I've got friends back home and I can tell you that they've both wished me well for the game." A self-deprecating Aucklander, eh? Wonders will never cease.

Four Reasons Why The Boks Are The Best

THE FORT KNOX FACTOR

If defence constitutes 50 per cent of a game, mega-tacklers like Henry Honiball and Andre Venter (above) are 100 per cent committed to making a proper job of it. The hardest side in the world to break down - astonishingly, they shipped only four tries in as many Tri-Nations games against the talented attacks of Australia and New Zealand - they have long subscribed to the view that it is very difficult to lose if the opposition fails to score.

THE EDUCATED RIGHT BOOT FACTOR

Last year's unexpected defeat by the Lions was based squarely on the fact that no Springbok goal-kicker could hit an elephant's backside with a double bass. Since when, Percy Montgomery (above) has brushed up on his marksmanship and started slotting them from everywhere. The Western Province full-back's tactical kicking has also emerged as a smart weapon; when in doubt he simply hoofs it downfield and leaves the rest to his tacklers.

THE ENLIGHTENED LEADERSHIP FACTOR

The big, strong, talkative one is Nick Mallett; the big, strong, silent one is No 8 Gary Teichmann (above). Together, they hit every spot that needs hitting. Coach Mallett is tuned-in, clued-up and proudly unbeaten; the very antithesis, indeed, of his ineffectual predecessor, Carel du Plessis. Under Mallett's tutelage, Teichmann present has managed to become the very antithesis of Teichmann past. A baffled captain a year ago, he now knows all the answers to all the questions.

THE RUGBY WITH ATTITUDE FACTOR

The Bokke psyche does not have an edge to it, it has a precipice. James Dalton (above), the tourists' first-choice hooker, used to be one of the two most competitive players in Test rugby and now that Sean Fitzpatrick has called it a day, the Transvaaler with the Yul Brynner hairstyle is out there on his own. The South Africans rarely fight these days - at least, not physically - but the old assumption of superiority, the divine right syndrome, still runs deep.

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