How All Blacks got the French touch
New Zealand No 2 Wayne Smith learnt his trade by studying Gallic rugby philosophy. Chris Hewett assesses how he's changed the way his country play
Wednesday 19 October 2011
Wayne Smith has a deep and abiding love of French rugby, so had he heard André Boniface, the great midfield maestro from Mont-de Marsan, talking a couple of days ago about the All Blacks' spectacular opening assault on the Wallabies in last weekend's World Cup semi-final at Eden Park, the words would have been music to the New Zealand coach's ears. "For the first time in my life," said the 78-year-old Boniface, "I felt like I was watching something from the movies. Never before, either as a player or a spectator, had I experienced it. For this, I thank the All Blacks."
Smith is one of Graham Henry's two assistants at this tournament, the other being Steve Hansen, but such has been the quality of the revered North Islander's contribution to the game in this country over the last three decades – give or take the odd sojourn abroad, notably with Northampton between 2001 and 2004 – there is no one on God's rugby earth who sees him as anything other than a leading light. Now, his association with the national team is drawing to a close, some 31 years after making his silver-ferned debut as an outside-half. He has one last game ahead of him, and as that happens to be a World Cup final, against the French of all people, it promises to be quite a farewell.
"The last five minutes in the coach's box last weekend were pretty special," Smith said yesterday, "because at that point I knew I'd have another week. But yep, whatever happens now, this is my last game with the team. I've had a lot of years here and I wouldn't swap them for anything: they've been the best days of my life. But there comes a time when decisions have to be made, when it becomes clear that moving on to something different is in the best interests of everyone. That time is now, so I'll have to get my fix elsewhere."
Initially, he will search for that fix inside the Waikato Chiefs provincial set-up, where the 54-year-old tactician has agreed a two-year stint as technical adviser. This will be something of a homecoming: while he made his name as a player in the South Island with the powerful Canterbury province, he was born in Putaruru, a small town a few miles south-east of Hamilton, capital of the Waikato region. And what happens after 2013? Fascinating. Yesterday, Smith indicated that if a sufficiently intriguing opportunity arose, he would move back into international coaching. "I want to be at the next World Cup with someone, in some capacity or other," he said. Testing, testing: anyone awake at Twickenham? Over.
If Boniface thought he was watching some computer-enhanced silver-screen version of his beloved game when the New Zealanders, it was a piece of work largely directed by Smith, who works closely with his namesake, the midfielder Conrad Smith. This second Smith is the best outside-centre in the sport, by a country mile – a player with such highly-developed footballing intelligence that he is the perfect man to absorb the coach's ideas, transmit them along the backline and bring them to fruition.
"Most of the things I want to say about Wayne, I'll say to him," said the man they call "Snake", a nickname that has more to do with his gifts as an elusive attacking runner than with the fact he is a qualified lawyer. "But he's been massive for me. My whole development as a professional rugby player has happened under his eyes and I owe him a lot."
But who were the men responsible for helping the coach fine-tune his ideas about tactics and strategy, selection and player development? Asked this yesterday, he identified the wonderful French full-back and boundary-pushing rugby thinker Pierre Villepreux as a major influence, and Villepreux's lesser-known countryman André Buonomo, both of whom he met in Italy, where he played and coached in the late 1980s and early '90s after retiring from top-level rugby in New Zealand. When you consider that two of the finest, most imaginative British coaches of the last 40 years – the late Carwyn James and Brian Ashton – also honed their thinking in Italy... well, it can only be something in the water there.
"I came from a very analytical rugby background," Smith explained. "These people were operating at the other end of the spectrum, concentrating on movement around the field, on the development of game sense. In New Zealand, we were good on skills and technique but not so good on the broader understanding of how a game might be shaped. It was a huge learning curve for me and when I eventually returned home, I did so with my own philosophy, which was very much a fusion of the two cultures."
All of which makes the clash of ideas this weekend something to savour, even though the rugby population of New Zealand sees the final more as a coronation than a contest. Unsurprisingly, Smith raised his guard immediately he caught whiff of anything remotely resembling an assumption. "France have a history of making life difficult for us in World Cups," he said. "They have the ability to turn results on their head. Knowing this should help us, though. If we appreciate how tough this is going to be, it will prevent complacency."
Which was pretty much the point made by his namesake; but then, the two men share a wavelength. Asked about the odds being quoted in support of a New Zealand victory – some bookmakers make the All Blacks 1-9 favourites – Conrad Smith sounded a note of caution, "People will be telling the French about those numbers, just as you're telling us, and when you're getting that kind of information... as a professional athlete, that's your motivation done, isn't it?" he said. "There are stories behind every game you play and this All Black team has become good at confronting them. We'll deal with this story, too, but there's bound to be an element of fear before a game as big as a World Cup final."
For the elder Smith, whatever fear he feels will not be fear of the unknown: he was in the coaching booth when France last did a job on New Zealand, on World Cup quarter-final night in Cardiff four years ago. His fear will be of a different kind, because there is no going back on his decision to walk away from his beloved All Blacks. The right call? We'll find out in 2015, when he surfaces for the next global gathering.
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