Graham Henry: 'Because of the rules, sides don’t take risks'

In an exclusive interview New Zealand coach Graham Henry talks with Peter Bills about the future of the game and his All Blacks team
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Tackling the technology that has inadvertently transformed rugby may be equally as important as changing minds in an increasingly kicking dominated game, All Blacks coach Graham Henry believes.

The New Zealand coach says that technology is partly to blame for the increasing preponderance of kicking in rugby, which is having so radical an effect upon a sport originally created as one to run with the ball, as well as kick.

Henry, in a comprehensive post-2009 Tri-Nations tournament analysis, spoke at some length regarding his views on the modern game and the prospects for New Zealand going forward. For example, he equated some rugby games these days to tennis matches, with the ball constantly to-ing and fro-ing in the air.

But perhaps the most surprising was his insistence that technology is a significant reason for the increasing transformation of the game.

“Technology is undoubtedly a factor behind this. The quality of the ball, like everything else such as the quality of the boots, is constantly improving. It means you can now kick the ball a long way out of hand and to goal. Guys are kicking the ball 60 metres these days because the ball has improved so much. Kicking is a skill but it is transforming the game and I don’t think that was in the original ideas of rugby.

“We can’t increase the length of the field; there might be opposition to that at places like Twickenham and Eden Park. But on the same size field as long ago, you can now kick the ball 10-15 metres further. That changes both the nature of the game and the nature of the penalty.”

Henry fears that New Zealand and Australia have most to fear if the game contracts, increasingly becomes largely a kicking dominated affair and people turn away from it because of its lack of entertainment. “Our two countries will suffer most if nothing is done about this. And there are already signs of that in the last couple of years because people are very concerned about this.

“People that have been traditional fans are now questioning the game because of the laws. There is nothing Australia and New Zealand can do about it. We wanted to make the ELVs permanent but we got out-voted.

“But the consequences of doing nothing about this in this part of the world are serious. It is a real problem because we do not have the population numbers in this country. Getting bums on seats is a big challenge, especially in a recession. In the UK, you will sell out a Test match all the time particularly given the close proximity of each country to another but chiefly because of the population numbers.”

Intriguingly, Henry’s comments mirror almost exactly those of Jack Nicklaus in golf. Nicklaus has said for some time that technology in his sport was changing its whole nature. Henry is one of the first to suggest a similar problem may be emerging in rugby.

But it isn’t the only difficulty facing the game. As the All Blacks coach says starkly, “Because of the rules, sides don’t take risks and don’t pass the ball very often. They are wary of playing a wider, more expansive game and scared of giving away penalties. It is becoming even more of a chessboard game than it ever has been. The way the game is played now is often like a tennis match with the ball kicked downfield so much.

“But there are several ways of solving this. You could reduce the penalty to 1 point.”

Wouldn’t that create widespread cheating? “It may do but it gives the possibility to the other side that if they get the ball there are ways of winning the game other than kicking goals. Another is the differential penalty at the tackle, which we had under the ELVs.”

Another method of limiting the incessant kicking and encourage keeping the ball in hand, he suggested, was to allow a mark to be called when the ball was caught, and play then taken back to where the kick was from, whereby a scrum would be formed. “That may cut out a lot of the kicking so for sure, there are answers to it.

“It is a matter of the people that have got the power making the correct decisions. But the problem at the moment is, what is the correct decision in one country isn’t necessarily the correct decision in another. So I think you need impartial people to make these decisions for the good of the game.

“I do think the rule makers have got to re-visit this. The game under the ELVs last year was much more enjoyable to play and much better to watch”.

Henry admits New Zealand’s difficult season in the Tri-Nations tested his resolve and inner strength. New Zealand lost three times to the South Africans yet his considered verdict is that not ending up winners, for the first time since 2005, may do New Zealand “a lot of good” in the long term.

“It’s been a pretty disruptive year. We gave it our best shot but we weren’t good enough, South Africa were better than us and we didn’t have consistent performances. I am not making excuses but there were several reasons for that.

“We had a lot of injuries, some to key players such as Ali Williams and, early on, Dan Carter. It meant we were choosing newcomers to Test rugby, like Isaac Ross at lock, a player who can develop into a top class lock forward. But he was being asked to compete against players like Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha who have won 60 or 80 plus caps. That’s very tough. Once we get our players back, we will improve.

“Also, we were in good nick in 2008 after a long break following the World Cup at the end of 2007. This year wasn’t nearly the same time out (for players) and the guys suffered from that.

“Then there was the factor of going back to the old rules which have made the game quite different”.

Now, he said, unless you had very good first phase ball, it was hard to be in a game because it was now one of field positions and New Zealand’s well documented difficulties at the line-out precluded that much of the time. So won’t it be just the same next season? Henry was more optimistic.

“We have to get the best out of the players we have. We have a much smaller resource than the majority of countries but that is what makes the job so interesting and stimulating. But the hunger among the players and coaching as deep as ever, that’s for sure.

“We probably had another team of injuries this year and while that is the way it goes sometimes, hopefully it won’t be the same next year.”

Yet he spelt out the brutal truth to his players. “Until we can get some consistent first phase, set piece ball it doesn’t matter what style you want to play, you will struggle. If we can do that, and I am sure we can, then you can play the game you want to play. But until we get that part of our game right, we are not going to compete.

“Have we got the personnel to do it? Yes, I think so. There were good signs in the last game but until we can do that against South Africa we are going to struggle. But at least one or two guys started to put their hands up. Corey Jane had a good Test match against the Wallabies and Isaia Toeava, a young guy we have been hoping to see things from, is starting to get his feet under the table. Then there was Adam Thomson. He has made remarkable progress this season.

“Richie played well but the way a lot of the game is played now, like a tennis match, when you are a loose forward and you have nothing to go to, it becomes pretty frustrating.”

Henry insists the All Blacks’ targets on their spring tour to the northern hemisphere will be clearly defined. “We want to play some decent rugby. We have some big tests ahead of us and it will be highly competitive. But we want to be proud of the rugby we play, that’s the first thing.

“Then there is the fact that 2011 is coming up and it’s going to be a very important tour for the players, either to further cement themselves as candidates for the World Cup squad or play their way out of contention. “

Graham Henry would approve of demoting talk of his own position and feelings to the end of such an article. He does not consider it important, despite the relentless criticism from some. “Obviously, you don’t enjoy that sort of thing, nobody does. But you just control your own environment and ensure you can do the job to the best of your own ability. That is what I have tried to do.

“The All Blacks are a little different, for rugby is a national sport in New Zealand. I think the New Zealand media expects top class performances from us every time we go out there. That has got positives and negatives. It puts a lot of pressure on people but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Pressure brings out the best in people.”