Henry feels the Dragon's breath

A nation's patience is wearing thin. Tim Glover says the Redeemer needs a win
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The Independent Online

Before being replaced as Wales coach by Graham Henry, Kevin Bowring realised that failure meant not only personal criticism but a rough ride for his children at school. With his latest career move, the Bowring family can expect to be treated with a little respect.

Three years after his departure from the principal job in the Principality, Bowring takes up the new role of head of elite coach development with England at Twickenham in January. With a ringing endorsement from Clive Woodward, the Rugby Football Union see it as their gain and Wales's loss. In the job creation category few companies match the RFU. With the little Englander mentality banished, the scale of their expansionism knows no boundaries.

Not that it's likely to meet with the approval of Jeremy Guscott. Of England's search for a new coach four years ago, Guscott, in his autobiography which was published last Thursday, writes: "They even went to New Zealand to talk to Graham Henry. It was just as well they didn't land him for I don't think that Henry has got that much out of Wales. And he's not English... it would have been an admission of failure."

It is now open season on Henry, particularly in Wales. Les Williams, a vice-chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, announced on a Welsh language television programme that he would not have appointed the New Zealander, adding that no coach was worth £250,000 a year. "He would never have got it in New Zealand." Williams later apologised for his remarks, claiming they were taken out of context.

Robert Jones, the former Wales captain, is also critical. In a new book, Raising the Dragon, Jones says that under Henry, Wales are over-coached and unimaginative and that the gap with England is widening. He also complains that Henry charged £2,000 to appear at a charity event and that he shouldn't have been given the Wales job, let alone the honour of coaching the Lions.

The fall-out from the Lions tour is still being felt and with further books expected shortly, Henry can expect further damaging headlines. Had he stayed in Auckland he would have been a front-runner for the job of coaching the All Blacks, which last week fell to John Mitchell. As it was, Henry's name was linked to the shortlist.

"Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers," he said. "It was never an issue and I never talked to the New Zealand Rugby Union about it. They know I'm on a contract here." It is an extraordinary rise for Mitchell who went from Sale to Wasps to England's assistant coach before returning to Waikato. Irony of ironies, his path to the All Blacks pantheon was made easier by Henry's decision to appoint Steve Hansen as his number two. Hansen, a former centre, will coach the forwards and is expected to arrive in Wales next month.

"He had been head-hunted for the All Blacks job but had already made a commitment to Wales, albeit only a verbal one," Henry said. "It was a difficult decision for him but it is a measure of the man that he honoured his agreement. He's had a lot of success with Canterbury and I'm looking forward to working with him. He's a marvellous acquisition." Henry's contract expires after the 2003 World Cup, Hansen's after the 2004 Six Nations.

With the honeymoon confined to a bitter-sweet album and the brickbats replacing bouquets, Henry, hailed as the Great Redeemer three years ago, has a more pressing engagement. Ireland visit Cardiff next Saturday in the last engagement of Wales's Six Nations after it was held over from last season.

Victory would secure Wales second place in the table behind England, a creditable achievement, but it would be a distant second considering the 15-44 hammering by the English seven months ago. "We need a higher quality of rugby, less quantity," Henry said. "New Zealand have five leading teams, Australia three, Ireland four and Scotland just two. We need to reduce the number of sides at the top level in Wales to between four and six but it's a very sensitive issue. It's very difficult to change 100 years of club and valley culture but it's obvious that the current set-up cannot be financed correctly. When Llanelli played Leicester last week they did so with half the financial resources of their opponents. We're not on a level playing field. If we could create an elite in Wales it would be the last piece of the jigsaw. The rest of it is in pretty good nick. It has to happen but the problem is putting it into practice."

Ireland, dismal in the recent defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield, will recall Eric Miller at number six and Mick Galwey to the second row. Peter Stringer will probably be recalled at scrum-half for Guy Easterby, and Kevin Maggs, who played on the wing against the Scots as a replacement, is expected to start at centre with Shane Horgan moving to wing.

"I expect to see a very different Ireland," Henry said. "They were hot favourites against the Scots and that is something they are uncomfortable with. They found it difficult psychologically to meet the expectations whereas Scotland had nothing to lose. The Irish were criticised heavily for their performance and the natural reaction is that they will now try to prove themselves, just as the Australians did in the Second Test against the Lions." There was, of course, more riding on that match in Melbourne, but defeat at the Millennium Stadium would be just as damaging to Henry.

This time last year he came under fire for his treatment of Arwel Thomas, who was recalled for the autumn internationals, dropped and then reintroduced during the match against the Springboks, by which time his confidence had evaporated. Henry admitted he made a mistake. In the goldfish bowl that is Welsh rugby, there is as much debate about the man who wears No 10 as there is about the coach.

In the warm-up against Romania, Henry tried the Swansea prodigy Gavin Henson but that plan was scuppered when he received an early injury. Stephen Jones was switched from centre and will partner Robert Howley against Ireland in the continuing absence of Neil Jenkins, one of the long-term casualties of the Lions tour.

Talking of which, Henry's account of the series appears soon. "I'm very happy with it," he said. "It's easy to read and very well written. It's a rugby book which is very positive about the game. It concentrates on the tour to Australia rather than other things which seem to grab the headlines." And the title? "I don't know what it's called, I can't remember. Henry's Pride I think."

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