New Henry relies on old All Black virtue of attacking excitement

The man trying to end a 19-year wait for the World Cup has remade himself before his team. He talked to Peter Bills
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The Independent Online

Graham Henry was a man at peace with himself, revelling in complete anonymity and solitude. And why not? He was on holiday, and it was his wedding anniversary. Fishing, and messing about on a boat, is his idea of relaxation. Soon enough, a maelstrom of work and pressure will once more assail his senses.

Rugby football is seldom far from the mind and thoughts of New Zealand's coach. Sure, it is his job, but also his passion. The privilege (his word, not mine) he feels each day in his position as All Blacks coach offers a daily stimulus that fuels his progress through even the most enervating of times. "I enjoyed the experience immensely in Wales but ask anybody coaching an international side and they would say there's nothing like coaching your own people. They have a greater understanding of you and where you are coming from. There is nothing better than this job.

"I'm very lucky, I have coached for a long time [32 years] and have experienced pressures before. There is no substitute for experience. So I feel a lot more comfortable doing this job now than when I started with Wales because I have been through it.

"Take the British Lions in 2001. If I had my time again I wouldn't have coached them, it was too much. But that tour was the biggest learning curve I have ever had in my career."

Thus, although holidays and Henry are only fleeting companions and the demands and expectations of his job are such that solitude is a rare luxury, Henry revels in his role. Even to the extent of discussing and analysing world rugby 16 months out from the 2007 World Cup while on holiday and celebrating his wedding anniversary.

"This is still a pretty special game. I like its values," he says. "Perhaps it isn't quite what it was in the old amateur days, for professionalism has changed that a wee bit and that is natural. But without professionalism, we wouldn't have a game now because everyone would have gone to rugby league. You have to say the game looks in a pretty healthy state world-wide. Certainly, in countries like New Zealand and England, there are more kids playing the game now than three to four years ago. The game is growing - its appeal is increasing."

Super 12 and now Super 14 rugby has undoubtedly been the catalyst for that state of affairs in the southern hemisphere. And with this year's final between two New Zealand teams, the defending champions Canterbury Crusaders and the Wellington Hurricanes, surely Henry has much about which to feel satisfied? Not so, he replies.

"The standard hasn't been as good as in previous years and there are reasons for that. The extra two teams and the length of the competition have added more travel and games, more training, too. A lot of teams have found that difficult, it has been a very long qualification for the final. Also, they play those games in almost summer conditions and that takes its toll.

"It is difficult to try and keep these guys at peaks for any length of time. If we try to do that at international level - and we have 13 Test matches this year, and there isn't a soft one - they will just fall over."

The All Blacks squad will be 30-strong for the Tri-Nations this year, which is in no way overkill in Henry's eyes.

"One of the reasons why New Zealand hasn't won the World Cup is that we have not had depth when we've suffered injuries. There have been no experienced players to step up. And also we need to keep players reasonably fresh."

Henry casts a shrewd, careful eye over the world scene, only too mindful of the fact that in little more than year's time, he must attempt to bring home the World Cup. The All Blacks, traditional powerhouse of world rugby, have not won the game's most prestigious tournament since 1987, a chasm spanning 19 years. How much has it hurt New Zealand not to have been world champions for so long ?

"We pride ourselves with being up there, so not to have won the World Cup since then is disappointing for a rugby nation. We went into one or two as favourites and fell over. I have tried to address the reason why and ensure the tools are there to handle it this time. I think we're making the right progress.

"We are trying to develop a style that suits the personnel of this team. Playing in a defensive, forward-orientated way would not be a style that would enthuse this group of people. We need to keep them excited so they are using the ball and enjoying the way they are playing.

"I know that teams have played a tight, conservative game to win past World Cups. But New Zealand won't play that way, not even to win a World Cup."

"I do think the team that will win the next World Cup will need to have an attacking philosophy. Weather conditions in France in September should be pretty good and the grounds conducive to using the ball.

"Wales look formidable potentially, because they will have a good side if all their best players are on the field. As for Australia, their challenge will be the tight five but they have a forward-orientated head coach I'd back them to put that right. I expect Australia to be pretty strong again. They have a lot of good athletes."

England's tour of Australia should be immensely helpful, he believes, in hastening their re-building phase. Unlike some, Henry believes 18 months is enough time to construct a new side. He acknowledges what he calls "England's talented young players". France, like England, have a huge playing base, in his estimation. "That will be a strength if they can unearth the players they should be picking. There are plenty of challenges out there for us."

Graham Henry might have an image of a tough man, unsmiling and a shade dour, perhaps some people's Identikit of the New Zealand coach. In truth, he has an excellent, dry sense of humour. Listening to him outlining why he has had to change his whole coaching style to suit the modern era reveals much about the man.

"I think most young guys these days are pretty sensitive, much more than 10 years ago. Your coaching style changes with the personality of the people you are coaching. Certainly, I can't coach the way I did in the mid-1990s. The players wouldn't respond to that. You have to coach accordingly to suit their upbringing because the world has changed.

"This has a lot to do with education. You have to be a lot more supportive as well as sensitive than you used to be."