Henry the prophet of Welsh revival still bears the scars

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The Independent Online

Just over three years ago, after a 54-10 defeat against Ireland, the Wales coach, Graham Henry, resigned.

Today, or rather 4.30am tomorrow New Zealand time, that country's national coach will be willing Wales to achieve the Grand Slam with everything he's got: "They've just got better and better," he says. "It's been great to see. I was on holiday in China for the Scotland game but I saw it on a sports channel there. I thought they were outstanding in the first half. We watched the England game at home with some Welsh friends who came over for breakfast. It was really very special. It was emotional."

Such sentiment seems odd coming from a man who always took the view that sentiment was Welsh rugby's biggest enemy. He set in motion the process which has changed the structure of the game in Wales for good. His vision was for the club game to be distilled down to four regional teams. The trouble was that, for that to happen, many clubs with very proud traditions had to be persuaded to be the turkeys who voted for Christmas.

Rob Finighan, a television producer who worked closely with Henry in Wales, watched the national coach give it straight to officials of the clubs who he felt needed a reality check. "He'd have a speaking engagement at some club in the valleys which had been there for generations, a club which aspired to improve itself. And he'd be absolutely merciless. He'd say, 'Look, you've got to forget getting yourself promoted and hitting the big time. You just need to concentrate on being a feeder club. That's what your role is going to be.' It's possible that only an outsider could have been detached enough to pull that off. Graham didn't care who he upset. He just knew it had to happen'."

Lyn Jones is the head coach at Neath-Swansea Ospreys, one of the four regional sides that Henry wanted. He, too, remembers well the art of persuasion as practised by Henry: "People would pay Graham a lot of money to speak at their dinners to tell us that we were a bunch of thick bastards who needed reforming. I saw him at a dinner once: 'Neath and Swansea,' he said, 'need to amalgamate.' You're talking about a guy who was brave enough to stand up in front of a load of Neath and Swansea people and say that."

Part of the reason Henry enjoys Wales' success so much now may be because it is seen in some quarters as vindication of his policy of rationalising the domestic game: "I knew we couldn't be successful unless we changed it so the top players were regularly playing at a higher level," he says. "I really enjoyed my association with the players and the game in Wales. I've got some scars from my time there but that's all part of it."

I point out that his use of the word "scars" puts me in mind of a claim Tony Blair once made that he had scars on his back thanks to his attempts to reform the public services. Henry is unimpressed: "You people are inclined to get very emotional about the whole thing."

So how much of the current success of the Welsh is down to the seeds of change sown by Henry? He is as keen to play down the suggestion as he is to reiterate the importance of the changes he helped to bring about: "I don't know [how much credit I should get]. In my time there it was a completely different team. A number of young guys have come in at the right time and now they've come into their own, which is absolutely marvellous. I think the structure's certainly helped, though - it's helped the players to grow in confidence."

I asked Lyn Jones, of the Ospreys, whether Wales would be on the verge of a Grand Slam now if Henry had never been national coach. Long pause.

"That's a big question. For me or anybody to point the finger at Graham and say it's all down to you would be incorrect. It's down to a lot of people, but it is true to say that Graham used to have to spend most of his time in England watching Welsh players there, because our club game wasn't good enough. And he was the first in line to say that had to change."

But ask many Welsh rugby fans if they give Henry credit for the current performance of the national team and you'll get a "no", or rather a "gnaw" as they pronounce it in South Wales when they're unhappy about something. Unfavourable comparisons are drawn between the style of rugby Henry's team played, and the more expansive game they're playing today. It was all just big and physical under Henry, you see.

"No it wasn't actually," says Henry, rather sharply. "We tried to play a similar game to what they play now. In the Test matches we won we used the ball a lot. We were trying to play a similar approach. It's the only the game the Welsh can play and they're certainly showing that now."

Lyn Jones agrees: "I think he had to play to the strengths of what he had available at the time. He didn't pick Shane Williams because he felt he was too small for international rugby but Shane wasn't the player then that he is now, like Gavin Henson wasn't the player a year ago he is now."

And, when pressed, most fans will just about concede that the upheaval in the domestic game has been a price worth paying for international success. But there is a view that the two are actually unrelated.

Simon Green is chairman of the Bridgend Supporters' Club. His regional side, the Celtic Warriors, are now defunct. "I honestly don't think the change in club structure has got anything to do with Wales improving," he says. "It's only just happened, so I don't think you can credit the Henry era for making Wales better. None of the regions have done well in the Heineken Cup, anyway. I do worry Wales will suffer with this structure. I hope I'm wrong."

A world away, Henry, whose All Blacks will soon be facing a Lions side with more Welsh players in it than he could ever have imagined, is hoping only for a win today. "It's going to do the game an immense amount of good in Wales. The kids," he predicts with satisfaction, "are going to be kicking around the oval ball instead of the round ball."