It is difficult to imagine Graham Henry, master of the smart-Alec one-liner and the "cat that got the cream" expression, as a man struggling in the throes of sporting uncertainty. But he is not quite the embodiment of self-confidence he appeared during his all-conquering days with Auckland, his triumphant early spell in Wales and his presumptuous period with the All Blacks in the build-up to last year's World Cup. The New Zealand coach is under a whole heap of pressure and there is no obvious sign of life getting easier as he heads towards next weekend's first Test against England.
Yesterday, the New Zealand Herald published a page of letters responding to a columnist's assertions that he "could not stomach" the former schoolmaster, "loathed" the New Zealand Rugby Football Union hierarchy – not least for its decision to retain the coaching team that presided over the failed Webb Ellis Cup campaign – and could no longer find it within himself to support the national side. The latter point, especially, bordered on the heretical, yet 50 per cent of reaction was pro-journalist and anti-Henry.
"Is this the biggest challenge I have faced in my career? No, I wouldn't have thought so," the coach said yesterday as he cast an eye over final preparations for his side's opening Test of the southern-hemisphere season, against Ireland here this morning. "But there is a good deal of pressure around and there have been some worrying developments. In this country, you can't afford to lose matches – especially at World Cups. Defeats generate a lot of views, a lot of interpretations, and that creates pressure, for sure."
The worry for New Zealand rugby is less a competitive one, although it is now more than 20 years since the All Blacks won the inaugural World Cup, than one of economics. The departures of a number of front-line players to Europe, where they can double or even triple their wages, and the special "sabbatical" arrangements put in place on behalf of the stellar outside-half Daniel Carter, who intends to maximise his earnings with a seven-month stint in France while remaining under contract with the NZRFU, have caused no end of fuss.
"We're lost a fair bit of experience," Henry said, thinking no doubt of Doug Howlett, Aaron Mauger, Byron Kelleher, Carl Hayman, Chris Jack and Jerry Collins, all of whom have walked away since the end of the World Cup in October. "Traditionally, we've had a good depth of talent, and we're lucky in that regard. But as time goes on, it's likely that the base will be eroded further. We have to ensure there is an environment in which guys still enjoy playing for the All Blacks, that their reasons for going – the dollars or whatever – are outweighed by what we offer here."
Not even his immediate family would describe Henry as the most popular figure in New Zealand sport as the two-Test series with England approaches. Many rugby followers – and this place has more rugby followers per head of population than anywhere else on the globe – wanted Robbie Deans, the spectacularly successful Christchurch-based Crusaders coach, to assume control of the All Blacks in the aftermath of last autumn's calamity. Instead, Henry was spared and Deans pushed off across the Tasman to coach the Wallabies, of all people on God's earth. Henry needs good results and he needs them now if the waters are to be calmed.
"I don't read what's written, or listen to what's said, but I'm aware of it and I have to handle it," he said. "It's just the way things are in New Zealand. When the All Blacks lose, it creates a huge reaction. If you don't live up to expectations, you get criticised."
England, who arrived in the North Island in midweek, held their first serious training session yesterday at the Takapuna club. Olly Barkley, the Bath midfielder who is expected to play a major role, did not train, because of bruising to his right thigh. His chances of playing in Auckland a week today are not thought to be threatened.Reuse content