Graham Henry: Great Redeemer of the All Black faith

In an exclusive interview, New Zealand coach Graham Henry talks about making wholesale changes, facing England today and why he is confident his side can finally achieve World Cup glory again By Chris Hewett, Rugby Correspondent
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The Independent Online

It is a week and a half since Graham Henry ditched all 15 members of the New Zealand team that ran record-breaking rings round Wales in Cardiff and assembled an entirely fresh combination for the meeting with Ireland in the inhospitable surroundings of Lansdowne Road - an extraordinary piece of selectorial swagger made more remarkable still by the absence of men in white coats.

Had Sir Alex Ferguson or Duncan Fletcher performed similarly comprehensive surgery on a winning side ahead of a Premiership game at Highbury or a Test match in New Delhi, they would have been straitjacketed without the option. Henry was barely asked to explain himself.

There were two very good reasons for the deafening acceptance that greeted this decision, reached by the All Black coach following discussions with the three colleagues who make up the silver-ferned Star Chamber where these affairs of state are debated: the assistant coaches, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, and the resident legend, Sir Brian Lochore, who captained the great New Zealand side of the late 1960s and then donned the tracksuit to guide his country to victory in the 1987 World Cup - a summit they have not scaled since, despite the best efforts of such luminaries as Alex Wyllie, Laurie Mains, John Hart and John Mitchell.

Firstly, Henry had given strong hints as to his thinking for some weeks prior to the Wales game, presumably in an effort to minimise the shock among the folk back home, who revere the All Black shirt in the way a wine buff might treasure a bottle of Château Petrus and would fight many a war to defend its honour. Secondly, the squad over which he presides is so ridiculously accomplished that he could have picked himself at loose-head prop and not lost a moment's sleep, let alone a ball against the head.

In addition, there was the reassurance of the coach's headmasterly manner - a compelling, occasionally intimidating mix of self-assurance and lordly superiority, underpinned by profound levels of technical and analytical expertise developed over a lifetime of rugby study. Few coaches in the game's history can have come across as less vulnerable than Henry does at present, and as sport regularly reminds us, nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.

Except Henry did suffer some uncomfortable moments ahead of last Saturday's game in Dublin. "I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't apprehensive about taking on the Irish with a completely new run-on team," he admitted this week. "I always have a few butterflies when there has been a big call in selection, and that was a big call. We'd spoken a good deal in public about our strategy for this tour, about how we were prioritising player development with a specific view to the 2007 World Cup. We'd made ourselves absolutely clear, yet there were plenty of people who thought we were bullshitting, for want of a better word. Now, they know we were being serious. Still, it was a pretty bold thing to do. I'm glad we won."

The All Blacks did more than win. They marmalised Ireland as they had smithereened Wales, to the merry tune of 38 barely answered points. Perhaps for reasons of variety, they did things the other way round in Dublin by scoring the bulk of their tries in the first half, having run riot after the interval at the Millennium Stadium seven days previously. It amounted to much the same thing, though, and if England go down by a similar margin at Twickenham this afternoon, British Isles rugby will be up to its eyebrows in quicksand.

Not that Henry is talking in terms of smearing the world champions all over south-west London. "We've named what we consider to be our best side for this game because we see it as our toughest challenge," he said. "Very definitely. They have a huge pack - the way they destroyed the Wallaby scrum last week was genuinely impressive - and we respect them, both as holders of the World Cup and for the fact that they beat us last time we were here." Would he have stripped his team bare after slaughtering Wales had England been next up? A long pause. "Let's just say that playing England third gave us an opportunity to go through the process we'd identified," he said, cryptically. In other words: not in a month of Sundays.

Henry is engaged in the grandest project in New Zealand, assuming Helen Clark's government has no immediate plans to build a bridge across the Cook Strait. The recovery of the World Cup has been a burning issue ever since a David Campese-inspired Australia made mugs of the All Blacks in the 1991 semi-final, and the temperature has grown increasingly molten with each successive failure. By hook or by crook, the All Blacks have found themselves off-cycle for some 15 years now. Over the hill in '91, they were 12 months short of full flower in 1995 and undercooked by a season or so in 1999. In the last tournament two years ago, they were again beaten by the Wallabies, again in the penultimate round.

"In that game," Henry said, "we had a bloke playing centre who had no experience whatsoever of the role he was being asked to perform. That wasn't just unnecessary, it was plain wrong. We had people out of position in '99, too, which tells you something about the level of planning. Mistakes happen, but you don't make the same ones twice. We're certainly not interested in making them a third time, so we've been absolutely transparent in our approach to the 2007 tournament. We need two world-class players in every position, right across the field, and we won't meet that target unless people are given the opportunity to play Test rugby.

"I couldn't count the number of times I've said this, but there are still those back home who believe we're devaluing the jersey by switching the side around. What can I say? I've tried everything I know in terms of educating the New Zealand rugby public as to what we're about - really, I couldn't have been clearer in explaining the strategy. If people simply refuse to buy it, there's nothing I can do except carry on regardless.

"Actually, I'm very pleased we've been able to give game time to 34 of the 35 players in the party. I think that's good for the future of rugby in our country. This, however, will be the last time we bring a squad of this size to Europe. Next year, I'll bring a bare 30 as a means of replicating tournament conditions. We'll be less than a year shy of the World Cup by then and it will be time to get our minds round it. We're not making this up as we go along, you know. We've been thinking this through for a while."

Ever a thinker, Henry has been operating on the dangerous edge of things since 1998, when he left Auckland - four straight titles with the provincial side between 1993 and 1996, successive Super 12 titles with the Blues in '96 and '97 - to try his luck with a Wales side so far down the pan they were within touching distance of the earth's core. They called him the "Great Redeemer" in the valleys, which was just a trifle disconcerting. Had Henry slipped into a pair of sandals and ridden into Cardiff on a donkey, anticipation could not have been greater.

Some of his work was superb - in 1999, he pieced together 10 consecutive victories, only a couple of them against soft opposition - but the pressures of operating with limited talent in a country of limitless expectation wore him down. By the time he accepted an offer to coach the 2001 Lions in Australia, his day job was already on the skids. He cut a solitary figure on that unhappy tour of Wallaby country. Some of his public comments were too waspish for his own good, and he ended up stinging himself. By the end of the trip, his mood was impenetrably dark.

Heaven knows, the craving for success in his native land runs as deep as anywhere on Planet Rugby, but he is infinitely more relaxed these days. His close association with Hansen and Smith is harmonious in the extreme - at times, they perform a comic treble act worthy of a night at the London Palladium - and he relishes the degree of freedom afforded him by the great and good of the New Zealand union. He is the strategist-in-chief, but he also gets his hands dirty with the specifics. Hansen runs the forwards and their set pieces, with the help of the scrummaging technician Mike Cron; Smith is in charge of attack; Henry masterminds the defence. When he dons the training gear, it is not entirely for show.

"Why do we get on so well? I'm probably fortunate that I'm reasonably mature - in age, if not in other ways," Henry, who is 59, said with a smile. "Steve and Wayne are not youngsters either. They have masses of experience between them, a good part of it gained in Britain, and they have a tremendous amount to offer. I was lucky to find myself in a position where I could select my own team; it wasn't a case of having to work with people who were already in place.

"That has not been the tradition in New Zealand rugby, but the situation was unusual in that there were only two applicants for the job - John Mitchell, who was reapplying for his own post, and myself - and we were most unlikely to work with each other. When I was appointed, I had a free hand. I made my choices knowing I would be working with well-balanced people, appropriate specialists who would make an appropriate input at appropriate times.

"If you're serious about winning the big prizes, you need a quality coaching team. The days of one or two men doing it are gone. I remember talking to Clive Woodward at dinner one night when I was with Wales, after we'd been royally stuffed by England. Apart from an assistant coach and a conditioning guy, the only help I had was from Lynn Howells, who was also taking charge of a club team at the time. Clive said: 'Mate, you three or four don't seriously expect to beat us 10, do you?' And he was absolutely right. It took us a while, but we have the right team now to make the most of ourselves in the modern game."

New Zealand have the players, too. Masses of them. The two wings who missed selection for today's contest in London, Rico Gear and Joe Rokocoko, could wander aimlessly into any other team in the world. So, in all probability, could Leon MacDonald and Conrad Smith, not to mention Sione Lauaki. Perhaps it is as well that Luke McAlister, who has it in him to claim the next World Cup tournament as his own, is back home on injury leave. What role could the All Blacks have given him at Twickenham? Barman?

"Yes, we have some very gifted players," Henry agreed. "My role now is to keep adding to their intellectual capacity, to make them as rugby-aware as possible. Some of the squad have grown immensely in this regard since they came together, and I find that very satisfying. I also want to lay strong foundations for whoever my successor might be, because one of the problems of coaches working in isolation - a big fault in the New Zealand game, in my opinion - is that it undermines continuity. But our priority is the World Cup. Do I think we have the individuals and the organisation to do the business? At this stage, yes, I think we do."

It is difficult to disagree with Henry at the best of times. As these may be the worst of times for the four home unions, staring as they are down the barrel of an All Black Grand Slam, dissension is almost an impossibility. New Zealand are way ahead of the field. With a telescope, you might just be able to see them.