Rugby World Cup: New Zealand hunt for coach as Hart quits

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The Independent Online
JOHN HART fully intends to face the music back home in All Black country - commendably, he has cancelled a family holiday in Hawaii so he can front up in person - but the wily old fox ensured yesterday that he would compose the tune himself.

In one of the few remaining predictable developments of a World Cup growing more surprising by the day, the New Zealand coach confirmed that he would not seek re-election when his contract expires next month. As another inspired rugby tactician, Carwyn James, was fond of saying, there is nothing like getting your retaliation in first.

"My time is up," said Hart in Cardiff yesterday, by way of accepting that his number was up, too. "I have been considering this decision for quite a while and I now take the view that this is the moment to move on. The loss to France last Sunday was devastating, the most devastating of my career, but I have shared many wonderful moments with the All Blacks over the past four years and I will treasure those. Needless to say, I remain 100 per cent supportive of the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby."

Hart is the second member of the silver-ferned hierarchy to bid a fond farewell in the space of a fortnight: David Moffett, the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, resigned earlier in the tournament after landing a high-profile post in Australian rugby league.

The coaching vacancy will not be filled before the NZRFU board meets to analyse the failure of the current campaign, but Wayne Smith, a former Test outside-half and Hart's technical advisor, is considered a hot front- runner. Smith has coached the Canterbury Crusaders to successive Super 12 titles and, provided his candidacy has not been undermined by his proximity to the Hart regime, he may well be handed the reins.

In which case, he will shoulder the same burden of expectation that finally brought Hart to his knees. "New Zealand is a small country on the edge of the world and it is only natural that we become obsessed with a sport in which we are recognised as one of the best," said Hart in his valedictory oration.

"That obsession has to be tempered with some reality, though. The reaction to our defeat by a side who played the most inspired rugby of their lives has not been good. While I recognise that no one is beyond criticism, players need support and encouragement. They haven't received much of that in the last week."

At 53, Hart may well be asked to perform some as yet undefined role at the top end of New Zealand rugby, but in the interim he is likely to concentrate on building up his business management consultancy. The All Blacks won 32 of the 42 Tests they played under his stewardship and secured a first series victory in South Africa in 1996 - a feat that had eluded the very greatest New Zealand sides since the first great trek of 1928.

The '96 team may well have been the finest All Black side of them all and for that reason alone, Hart deserves to be honoured rather than lambasted.