Graham Henry lost the hearts and minds of some of his senior players and came close to losing his own mind too, hence his decision to walk away from his £250,000 a year job as Welsh national coach. Now it falls to another New Zealander, the Super 12-winning south islander Steve Hansen, to rekindle the special spirit of a unique rugby country and prevent a calamitous slide down the Six Nations rankings – a slide that could set the game in Wales back a decade.
The fact that Hansen is a Henry appointment – the former Canterbury Crusaders coach was introduced to the Welsh set-up as forwards specialist a month ago – will hardly have the Red Dragon public dancing in the streets. But he at least has a better understanding of the task ahead than his fellow Antipodean, the Australian skills coach Scott Johnson, who took up his post with the Welsh Rugby Union precisely a week ago and must feel as though he has walked naked into a forest of stinging nettles. "Professional rugby requires a sense of humour, and I think I have one," Hansen said yesterday. He will need it, for sure.
Henry's abrupt departure left the WRU with no choice but to appoint a caretaker coach for the remaining four rounds of the Six Nations: the union may see Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli as the heir apparent, but he currently has Heineken Cup and Welsh-Scottish League titles to chase. Hansen will work alongside Johnson, the defence coach Clive Griffiths and the conditioning expert Peter Herbert in a unit managed by Alan Phillips, the former international hooker. The WRU will review the situation in April.
It is likely that Henry will still be in Wales when the big decisions are made, for his wife, Raewyn, has on-going coaching commitments with the national netball team. It is even possible that the WRU will consult him on their next appointment. Yesterday, the chairman of the union Glanmor Griffiths described Henry as "one of the world's elite coaches and a great rugby man".
Bizarrely, Griffiths then attempted to persuade his audience that, on the one hand, Henry had not resigned, and, on the other, that the WRU had not sacked him. The way the chairman told it, the best-paid coach in the game had simply evaporated. The truth is that Henry walked; even though he had 20 months left on his contract, his side's 54-10 defeat at the hands of the Irish last Sunday left him with nowhere to go but through the exit door. Griffiths' reluctance to use the 'R' word was directly related to the complex financial arrangements underpinning the coach's departure – a pay-off of around £80,000, according to WRU insiders.
A tough and abrasive figure for so much of his career, Henry was in full mea culpa mode yesterday. Not that he appeared to face his public. Instead, he issued a statement in which he admitted that his experience in Wales, and that with the British and Irish Lions last summer, had left him struggling for air. "The intensity of the rugby Wales and the Lions have played since I arrived... has led to a burn-out factor in my coaching," he said. "In my view, the Welsh players need a little bit more than I appear able to give them at the moment.
"In light of recent results, I've had to take a look at myself in the mirror and ask myself some harsh questions. I still think I'm a good coach, but I don't think I'm coaching as well as I can. It is no knee-jerk reaction to the result in Ireland but, being brutally honest with myself, I feel the time has come for the team to hear a new voice."
According to Phillips, Henry spent five minutes with the Test squad yesterday and "looked like a man who had had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders".
Griffiths, who met with Henry on Tuesday night and received a "typically honest assessment of the way he felt about his role and what he had left to offer", suggested that the Lions tour of Australia had been too much of a burden for a coach already struggling to restore Wales to the front rank of the international game. "Possibly, we made a mistake in letting Graham go with the Lions," the chairman said. "It takes enormous commitment for one person to concentrate on the fortunes of a great rugby nation like Wales and also prepare himself for the demands of a Lions tour."
When the dust has settled on this episode, it is likely that the WRU will counsel against an incumbent national coach being given the Lions job in New Zealand in 2005. The successful series in South Africa in 1997 – the first Lions tour of the professional era – was masterminded by Ian McGeechan, who was coaching at club level with Northampton at the time and had few loyalties to Test players. Henry's fallings-out with a number of Welsh Lions last summer certainly contributed to the events of the last few days.
Meanwhile, Hansen has been left holding the baby. "I'm excited," he said yesterday. "I wasn't looking for this when I came here, but I know I can coach. The expectations are great, but I'll back my instincts and do what I think is right." And the very best of luck to him.
* The Bridgend coach Dennis John has left after two and a half years in charge. Bridgend are languishing near the foot of the Welsh-Scottish League and failed to get a point during the Heineken Cup pool stages.Reuse content