An email conversation with Graham Henry: England can win the World Cup with their players

Richie McCaw's chance to make mark; The Celtic countries are a real force; Top rugby is more intense and physical
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The All Blacks played some sensational rugby on their autumn trip to Europe. Now you've had a chance to reflect, how close was your team to the optimum? Hopefully, not close at all. We're still a long way off the World Cup and we're improving all the time. We play France and Canada in the Iveco International Series in June, which are important fixtures for us. There is fierce competition for places at the moment, which is a fortunate position to be in, and it's driving us forward. I'd like to think there's still plenty left in the tank.

Richie McCaw, in particular, performed quite brilliantly. Do you still miss Tana Umaga's leadership qualities, or has McCaw bridged the gap completely? It's not a case of bridging gaps; they are completely different players and bring different qualities to the team. Tana is one of the finest players to wear the All Black jersey and will always be regarded as an outstanding leader. Now it's Richie's chance to make his mark and that's exactly what he's doing. The All Blacks have a history of great captains and, so far, Richie's doing all the right things to follow in those footsteps.

The big victory over England put Andy Robinson under considerable pressure, and it's now a matter of record that he failed to survive the autumn series as head coach. What are your thoughts on his demise, and to what extent will Brian Ashton bring something different to the mix? Brian appears to have brought in some new thinking in the selections he's made and he seems to know what he's doing.

Can England realistically hope to follow a fresh path at this late stage in the World Cup cycle and still make a decent fist of defending the Webb Ellis Trophy come September? Of course, England can go on to win, as can a handful of teams. They have world-class players in important positions and a new and ambitious coach, so we'll see.

The Celtic countries are gathering a head of steam just at the right time. Do you see this being one of the more competitive Six Nations Championships of recent years? The Six Nations has always been highly competitive and it always will be. That's not the question. The question is one of standard and the standard of this year's Six Nations will certainly be better than ever. The Celtic countries are a real force to be reckoned with.

Let's look more closely at your old muckers in Wales, who have Australia in their World Cup group and have the spectacular advantage of playing them in Cardiff. Can they win their pool?

Of course. Wales are a world-class team and have been for some time now. Look at the score back in November; it was a draw, wasn't it? There are a number of teams playing at an extremely high standard and there are no clear-cut group winners. There'll be no easy rides through.

You had two full-on scraps with Ireland back in June. Most rugby followers in Europe see them as the most potent of the British Isles teams at present. How good are they? They are very good indeed. You can tell they've been playing together for a long time. They read each other extremely well, it's a sign of a mature team. What's more, they've got some truly world-class players - O'Driscoll can disrupt some of the finest defences, O'Connell is a colossal presence, O'Gara is a world-class decision maker ... the list goes on. They're coming to the boil at just the right time ... but then so are a lot of teams.

As for the Scots, they're in your World Cup group and you play them in Edinburgh. Are you happy about that? It seems just a little unfair, given it's meant to be a French tournament. The last thing we'll be doing is preoccupying ourselves with who we're playing or where we're playing them.

We know you're withholding most of your leading players from the forthcoming Super 14 competition - a decision that has caused something of a fuss in your part of the world, especially with the broadcasters. Now, the Australians are having a similar argument between themselves. Do the front-line individuals really need this mollycoddling? Top-level rugby is only getting more intense and more physical. Playing a large number of high-level games increases the risk of serious injuries substantially and it's our priority to put the welfare of our players first.

It could happen again this year - the All Blacks reach the semi-final of a World Cup without a really hard match, then find themselves having to move up several gears. How do you guard against it? It's not something you guard against, you simply have to take each game at a time. No matter who you're playing, you have to throw everything at them, it's all you can do... and if that's not good enough then that's tough.

In a word, who will win the Six Nations? In several more words, why? Wales. Because they will.

Graham Henry was speaking at the launch of the All Blacks latest 'Global Partner' Iveco.

Attachment: The Graham Henry Lowdown

By Sam Betts

* Born 8 June 1946, Christchurch

* Career in education He taught at two schools known for their rugby prowess, Auckland Grammar School and Kelston Boys' High School, coaching both their first XVs. He began his career at Auckland in 1973 and remained there - while completing a post-graduate degree in education part time - until 1982 when he was appointed deputy headmaster of Kelston. In 1987, following the unexpected death of the headmaster, Jim Paton, while jogging, Henry became headmaster, a job he held until resigning to become a full-time rugby coach in 1996.

Coaching career Auckland Blues (1992-1998); Wales (1998-2002); British Lions Australia Tour (2001); New Zealand (2003-present).

* Coaching honours (with Auckland Blues) National Provincial Champions 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996. Super 12 1996, 1997. (With Lions) Head coach 2001 - the only coach ever from outside the British Isles. All Blacks beat Lions 3-0 in series summer 2005 under Henry's management. Tri-Nations 2005, 2006

IRB International Rugby Coach of the Year 2005, 2006