RUGBY UNION; New coach Henry has a safe pair of hands

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By Robert Cole

GRAHAM HENRY waltzed into Wales yesterday on the first assignment of his pounds 1.25m job as the new Wales coach and promptly soft-shoe shuffled around every curve ball thrown his way.

The 52-year-old New Zealander, faced by a barrage of television cameras and journalists, picked his way through the questions with extreme caution.

Henry is being hailed as the new Messiah of Welsh rugby, but he left no rope dangling with which to be hung the months ahead by not making anything remotely approaching a rash promise.

The man who has enjoyed almost unblemished success with Auckland, Auckland Blues and New Zealand A now finds himself in charge of a national team still coming to terms with a 96-point hiding from South Africa.

"I have come with no pre-conceived ideas and I expect the Welsh players to be like any other player anywhere in the world, to have a desire to do their best," he said.

"I want committed guys who give 100 per cent to the team and are obligated to their training and fitness. I want them to be excited about playing for Wales and I want them on the edge of the edge."

As to Welsh expectations when they host next year's World Cup there was another neat side-stepping answer. "As long as there is an upward slope of improvement, most people will be happy with that," he said.

And as to taking up the poisoned chalice there was more of the same. "Every coach realises that if they don't produce results they can't expect to last," he said. "That is part of the deal and I am comfortable with that."

Henry, who takes over three months after the departure of Kevin Bowring, will return to Wales to take up his post on 28 August will then go under the microscope in a big way, starting with the Test against South Africa at Wembley in November.

"There is a great passion for the game in Wales and that was a major reason for me in accepting the offer, but the foundations have to be there to produce a good team," he said.

"You cannot put the cart before the horse, the right structure is crucial if Wales are going to be competitive."

Henry has indicated he is likely to take a couple of Welsh club coaches aboard his coaching team, but he will not be rushed into anything he may later regret.

"I need time to get the feel of things," he said. "It won't be tomorrow and it might not be in 90 days. There is nothing worse than making wrong decisions and then having to change them.

"It was a great honour to first be asked about the post six weeks ago and now I am delighted to be here. I will do as much as I can to ensure Wales get the results we want."

It has been one long success story for Henry so far, but now comes the real test of his coaching ability, with Henry admitting he has been "fortunate" with the players and teams he has worked with over the last seven years. Having said that it is worth noting that of the 39 Super-12 matches Auckland played under his guidance, they won 32, drew one and lost six.

As to his style he left no one in any doubt that he is very much a hands- on man. "I am a coach - a tracksuit coach - and I always have been a coach," he said. "I am not a manager. I leave management to others."