Graham Henry, very nearly as good a talker as he is a coach, surpassed himself as a sporting rhetorician yesterday by portraying the All Blacks team for which he is now responsible as little boys lost in a rugby environment...
Graham Henry, very nearly as good a talker as he is a coach, surpassed himself as a sporting rhetorician yesterday by portraying the All Blacks team for which he is now responsible as little boys lost in a rugby environment that has been turned on its head by a combination of rampant professionalism, cultural isolationism and England's watershed victory in last year's World Cup. It was an extraordinary performance - thoughtful, eloquent and, apparently, candid. Clive Woodward will not have believed a word of it.
Tomorrow, Henry takes the New Zealand national side into a Test match for the first time. And what a Test - against England, their conquerors in Wellington this time last year, and the holders of the Webb Ellis Trophy. While the tourists are armed with a forward pack boasting almost 300 caps' worth of hardened international experience, Henry has torn the All Black unit limb from limb, introducing a debutant in Jono Gibbes and relative unknowns in Carl Hayman, Keith Robinson and Xavier Rush. If the home coach was being straight with his audience, this weekend is more about hope than expectation.
Henry cast England as favourites for the sell-out game at Carisbrook. "When I coached the Lions in 2001, things had to be done quickly," he said. "But even then, there were four or five weeks leading into the first Test against the Wallabies. This side's been together three and a half days, so the scale of the challenge is... well, Everest, basically."
Woodward, an open critic of the decision to award the Lions' coaching job to a foreigner, will have some sympathy with Henry on the preparation issue, for he knows what it is to work against the clock. Indeed, he highlighted lack of training time as a principal cause of England's dismal showing in this year's Six Nations' Championship. But Woodward will be deeply suspicious of his rival's assessment of the wider problems in New Zealand rugby.
"We're pretty isolated down here," Henry said. "English rugby has progressed massively in the last five or six years, in terms of efficiency and focus and work ethic. They have big playing numbers, vast resources and these advantages have helped them turn objectives into reality. Their objective now, having won the World Cup, is the only one they can have: to make success last for ever.
"The All Blacks, on the other hand, have not concentrated their efforts on the basic disciplines and unit skills, but depended on the Jonah Lomus, the Jeff Wilsons and the Tana Umagas doing something brilliant to win a game of rugby. We have also had the Super 12 tournament as our platform for Test selection - a competition played on hard grounds and one which often seems like a glorified game of sevens. You can win international matches with that type of rugby in summer conditions, but a match against England in Dunedin in mid-June, at 7.35 at night, is not summer."
Henry was certainly genuine in his admiration for the "hard edge of European rugby, where there is a huge contest for dominance up front, week in and week out". He admitted that New Zealand had "drifted away from the forward platform" and would have to drift back if the All Blacks were to be competitive enough to meet the demands of a sporting population raised on assumptions of invincibility.
But when he talked about the "fear factor of confronting a hugely physical English pack", he seemed to be gilding the lily a bit. No All Black side in history has feared England - or anyone else, come to that, with the possible exception of the formidably constructed and fearsomely committed Springbok sides of the post-war years. Indeed, the coach diluted his own argument by pointing out that New Zealand had lost recent matches, including the one in Wellington a year ago, because of poor goal-kicking rather than any deficiencies at forward.
England flew to Dunedin yesterday, having spent the week training in Auckland. They were greeted by the news that Richie McCaw, the outstanding open-side flanker in world rugby, would definitely start for New Zealand, having missed the recent All Black trial through injury. Chris Jack, the most potent lock in these parts, has also been passed fit. Confirmation of their participation helped put Henry's charm offensive into perspective.Reuse content