Henry bets on Wilkinson gamble

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Graham Henry, certainty made flesh in the usual run of things, is not at all sure how the British and Irish Lions will line up against his All Blacks come the first Test in Christchurch in June, England's startling demise as an international force having muddied the waters.

Graham Henry, certainty made flesh in the usual run of things, is not at all sure how the British and Irish Lions will line up against his All Blacks come the first Test in Christchurch in June, England's startling demise as an international force having muddied the waters. What is more, he is far from convinced that New Zealand's leisure industry is equipped to handle the most concentrated influx of visitors in the country's sporting history. He knows this much, though: Jonny Wilkinson will be included in the tour party, regardless of his state of fitness.

"When you have a player like Wilkinson at your disposal, you take a punt on him," said the All Blacks coach who, when the boot was on the other foot and he unsuccessfully took charge of the Lions in Australia in 2001, picked an injured Lawrence Dallaglio and saw the gamble explode in his face like a stink bomb in a school chemistry lab. "Yes, I selected Dallaglio, and I'd take the same risk again," he continued. "He was a pretty important figure on that tour in terms of the game we wanted to play, and if he'd come right, things might have been different. It's the same thing with Wilkinson. I'm sure he'll travel, and I'm sure he'll be very influential."

Talking from New Zealand yesterday, Henry admitted to being surprised at the precipitous nature of England's tumble down the rankings following a run of eight defeats in 11 matches, one of them, horror of horrors, against Wales. "I guess the 'wow' factor about the Six Nations tournament so far is that England are not performing," said the man who plotted the previous Welsh victory over their nearest and dearest in 1999. "There are obvious reasons for it - a lot of injuries, a lot of experience lost to the team. But with all that depth of talent available to them, it does surprise me that it isn't coming through on the international scene."

So where does this leave Henry and his planning for a once-in-a-generation series that, in his own words, will pinpoint exactly where New Zealand, indisputably the greatest rugby nation in the world for much of the last century, now stand in the great scheme of things? The last two Lions squads, in South Africa in 1997 and in Wallaby country four years later, were heavily laden with Englishmen. If, as a result of this Six Nations, the Irish and Welsh account for a majority of Sir Clive Woodward's 44-strong party, will the All Blacks find themselves paying a return visit to the drawing board?

"We expect to meet a very strong side," the coach replied, ducking the question ever so slightly. "They're picking from four nations, aren't they? I have no doubt they'll have the players to put a great side on the field. It's a matter of whether they can pull it all together from a coaching point of view. I imagine Clive pencilled in his likely Test team before the start of the Six Nations, and he'll be working his way methodically through the evidence provided by each match. I guess he'll be disappointed by some of the form he's witnessed, but I don't suppose there's any panic. There's a lot of water to pass under the bridge before they come down here."

If Henry was understandably reluctant to choose Woodward's side for him - the players he mentioned, the Brian O'Driscolls and Paul O'Connells and Gavin Hensons, were not exactly controversial in the selectorial sense - he was even less inclined to engage in a debate over the World Cup-winning coach's criticism, some of it in a book published last year, of the 2001 tour and the way it was structured and managed. "I'd love to read Clive's book, but I haven't had the time," Henry said, a trifle caustically. "There were some negatives in 2001, but it's a big bad world out there. You just have to function as best you can."

The general shape of this summer's All Black team was decided upon last autumn, when the New Zealanders ran through Europe unbeaten and turned in a vintage display against France. While Henry will take a keen interest in the forthcoming Super 12 competition, the rugby played on hard grounds in 30 degrees of heat will not impact hugely on a Test series confidently expected to be contested in several metres of mud.

"It never ceases to amaze me that Super 12 provincial teams get more preparation time than international sides," he moaned. He will understand if Woodward forgets to pop a sympathy card in the post. Henry may not see much of his players, but at least he knows who they are. Meanwhile, his opposite number continues to grope around in the dark.

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