Triumphant All Black coach tells Red Rose to stick with Johnson
Support for under-fire England manager while Hansen hopes to step into Henry's shoes
Tuesday 25 October 2011
It may be a cunning plan – the All Blacks have been known to hatch such things now and again – but as Graham Henry and his stellar coaching staff celebrated New Zealand's seizure of the World Cup amid scores of thousands of silver-ferned supporters in the city centre here yesterday, there were several messages of support for Martin Johnson, the beleaguered England manager. "I'd imagine continuity is important," said Henry when quizzed on the subject. "He's a top man. If you put new people in there, the whole thing has to be learnt all over again. It's a mature decision to go for continuity if the people doing the job are competent."
Both the All Blacks and England are now in a state of flux, although the former are enjoying the experience rather more than the latter. Henry, who confessed to a feeling of "inner peace" after ending his country's anguished 24-year wait for a second world title, will link up with the Barbarians in a few weeks' time while his second in command, Steve Hansen, aims to take full charge of the new champions.
"I don't know what the process is, but I'd like to have a crack at it," said the one-time policeman and former head coach of Wales. Hansen was equally keen to talk about the continuity factor. "It's what won us the tournament – an accumulation of experience," he said, referring to the New Zealand governing body's decision to stand by a much-maligned coaching team after the World Cup failure four years ago. "We had people who had been there before, and that creates more desire to get the job done. It also puts more tools in the tool box. Experience allows you to deal with things: when you're hurt, you're able to dig a lot deeper. It's no coincidence that this was the first time we'd allowed a coaching group to have a second crack. England did the same thing with Clive Woodward, right?"
There was a good deal of back-slapping going on, and rightly so. "Bidding for this tournament gave us the opportunity to express something about ourselves to the world and there is now an appetite to celebrate our country a good deal more than we have in the past," said New Zealand's minister for sport, Murray McCully. "We were in completely uncharted territory here, yet we attracted 120,000 people to our shores – twice the number of visitors who travelled to Australia for the 2003 World Cup. It was a leap of faith, and I believe the leap has been justified."
Might the World Cup ever return to the greatest of all rugby countries? Before the tournament, Mike Miller, the chief executive of the International Rugby Board, appeared to rule out the prospect on the grounds that the game could no longer afford small returns from relatively small economies. Yesterday, the chairman of the IRB, Bernard Lapasset, sang a different tune.
"Why not?" asked Lapasset, who performed a remarkable impersonation of a Frenchman not torn asunder by the harsh nature of his country's defeat in Sunday's final. "World Cups are not just about making money. There are a lot of rugby reasons to come back to New Zealand. We are in England in four years' time, then in Japan in 2019. After that, we are free to make another choice – and I can say that this tournament has set the bar very high."
To a degree, this is a watershed moment for the All Blacks: certainly, the side that completed the job at Eden Park at the weekend will never play together again. Brad Thorn, the 36-year-old lock, is now in international retirement, while Stephen Donald, the man who kicked the decisive penalty after being called up late to cover for a rash of injuries in the No 10 position, will soon be on his way to Bath for a spell of English club rugby. Interestingly, he suggested that he might not have opted to leave his homeland had he foreseen the events of the last week or so.
"I'll have to ring Sir Ian McGeechan [the director of rugby at the Recreation Ground], to find out the plan," said the man from Waikato. "Life throws you some curveballs here and there and this is one of them. It's quite weird to think I'm leaving. At the time I made the call I was well out of the picture as far as the All Blacks were concerned. It made my life a lot easier. Now all this has happened ... it is what it is."
The World Cup festivities ended last night (in Auckland at least: the All Blacks will make appearances in Wellington and earthquake-stricken Christchurch over the next day or so) with the annual IRB awards presentation, where Thierry Dusautoir, the captain of France, was named player of the year. Given the nature of his performance in defeat at the weekend – one of the finest by a back-row forward for many moons – it was the only choice. Unsurprisingly, the All Blacks took the team award, while Henry received the coaching gong.
One small piece of good news for England amid the doom and gloom: George Ford, the Leicester outside-half and son of the red-rose defence coach Mike, was named young player of the year.
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