Henry confident All Blacks have not lost aura

New Zealand coach remains unruffled by Welsh counterpart's accusation that the Kiwis are losing their winning ways. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

Despite admitting that Dan Carter is "not 100 per cent" certain of recovering from his calf injury in time, it was with a familiarly confident air that Graham Henry announced the team which will be trying to extend a quite staggering period of dominance over Wales to 57 years and 21 games. As the New Zealand coach put it: "We are here again, the same as we've been for the last seven years."

Except something has changed with the All Blacks in the last 12 months; certainly if one of their former number is to believed. As Wales coach, Warren Gatland may well have been working to his own agenda when accusing his nation's heroes of "losing their aura" and of "looking fallible". But he has not been the first to say it. Simply the most controversial.

For his part Henry was determined to stay away from the subject yesterday, declaring that "it is up for others to judge us on such mystical statements." The former "Great Redeemer" of Welsh rugby was keen to make out that it is business as usual on these autumn tours. He talked of "building" and of obeying the "policy" of allowing fringe players to put up their hands. Zac Guildford, for instance, is a 20-year-old wing who will be winning his first cap. This is clearly not Henry's strongest team but, again, in his words, "it is still a very strong team". "There is no disrespect to Wales, absolutely no disrespect," he added, making it plain he did not want to enter any war of words. At least his opposite number has failed in that regard.

Gatland now has enough previous on the charge-sheet marked "mind games" to accept that he had indeed targeted Henry's perceived vulnerability. But still, this might be a case of "just because they are out to get you doesn't mean you shouldn't be paranoid". Whatever they say, or they don't say, the Henry Cartel is most definitely under surveillance, if only because this genuinely could turn out to be one of the All Blacks' worst years; a year in which, one day, they may even be viewed as being up that brown creek without an aura.

If it remains a stretch to fancy Wales to overcome their All Black hoodoo – and even more of a yank to imagine Martin Johnson's England lowering the magical shirts in a fortnight – then Paris in three weeks has danger written all over it. In June, in Dunedin of all places, France beat them. Put this with the three Tri-Nations defeats to South Africa and it means New Zealand have lost four times in 2009. They haven't lost five tests in a year since John Hart's brush with mediocrity in 1998.

So this series is anything but the meaningless money-earner it is sometimes depicted as Down Under. After the stellar season of 2008, the regime has come under heavy criticism. One columnist – Chris Rattue in the New Zealand Herald – went as far to announce he hoped Wales win on Saturday. "After a fair-to-hopeless season," he wrote, "a shock defeat would be a welcome comeuppance for the Teflon trio, a panel which escapes the serious scrutiny that has shaped All Black history."

Like many commentators, Rattue expressed bafflement at the swapping of roles between the "Teflon trio", which saw Henry switch from defence coach to forwards coach, Steve Hansen from forwards to attack and Wayne Smith from attack to defence. This case of international musical chairs was put into effect in the training camp before the tour. Yesterday, Smith denied it came about at the behest of senior players who thought the set-up had become "stale".

"As coaches we first discussed it at the end of the last year," he said. "It was all about improvement. That's all. We've all been head coaches so these were hardly new areas we were moving into. It all had nothing to do with 'staleness'. I don't think that exists in our group. We have had seven first-teamers leave since 2007 so it would be hard to call us stale."

But then, any difficulty has palpably not stopped the critics. Rattue and Co see this development as a widening of the cracks in a regime that has had its chance and could not come up with the goods when it truly mattered – which, until they win it again, will remain the World Cup. Is there any chance Henry will not be there at 2011 to redress one of sport's strangest anomalies? Well, defeat at the Millennium Stadium would give substance to any snowball. And as Hansen, another former Wales coach, suggested, the possibility is not as remote as it may seem.

"It's no different to a drought," he said. "Another dry day is always another day closer to it raining. One day, Wales will beat us again. Let's hope it's not Saturday." Henry sat next to him and merely smirked.

All Blacks team to face Wales

*New Zealand team for the Millennium Stadium on Saturday: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Brendon Leonard; Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata, Brad Thorn, Jason Eaton, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read.

Replacements: Corey Flynn, Owen Franks, Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Jimmy Cowan, Stephen Donald, Ben Smith

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)

Kick-off: 17.15