Exclusive: Graham Henry on Tri-Nations, high expectations and law variations

In an exclusive interview with Peter Bills, New Zealand coach Graham Henry defends the IRB’s rule changes and insists their critics need to be patient
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The Independent Online

Graham Henry's first wish came true 12 days ago: New Zealand retained their Tri-Nations crown. His second may be a little more difficult to achieve.

As he prepared for a short holiday, Henry was in reflective mood this week, reflecting no doubt on probably his greatest triumph as All Blacks coach. To have held on to the Tri-Nations title for a fourth successive year while building a new team was impressive indeed.

But it is events a long way from his native shores that are his main concern, and in particular the vexed issue of the Experimental Law Variations. These have gone down like a lead balloon in the northern hemisphere, but Henry insists they have great merit.

"When we first started using the new laws at the beginning of the Super 14, there was some pretty bleak rugby," he concedes. "But it got better and better. Players got comfortable with the rules and the referees got better at refereeing them.

"There have been some fabulous spectacles in the Tri-Nations with the ball in play much more than under the old laws. Our players certainly enjoyed the ELVs in the end and they undoubtedly helped the game in this part of the world as a spectacle. So the northern hemisphere needs to be patient."

But if the northern hemisphere refuses to sanction them, what would the southern hemisphere countries do? Talk of a possible worldwide split is growing, but Henry shudders at that thought. "I believe the game would decrease as a spectacle if we went back to the old laws. It would have a negative effect on the way the game is played because people won't take risks under those laws.

"The northern hemisphere people have their heads in the sand. In Europe, they get big crowds because they have a big population base. Down here, we have to play a good game in the right style because we don't have that population. We have a real concern about ensuring the game is popular, that people like what they see so the style is critical. That isn't such a concern in England.

"We cannot afford a split. If there is one, it will give the club competitions of England and France more power. There needs to be a lot of talk around the table and that may be tough."

It was undoubtedly Henry's toughest task these past few months, rebuilding an All Blacks side after the loss of so many experienced players to the northern hemisphere. There are those who suggest that Tri-Nations rugby standards have dipped, but the the New Zealander is having none of it. Henry insists the tournament remains above the standards of any competition in the northern hemisphere, filled as he is with respect for the tradition of the Six Nations.

"For the standard of teams competing, this is the No 1 tournament in the world," he insists. "The quality of the teams in the Six Nations is not as high. Every year, the Tri-Nations is hugely competitive. They are the toughest Test matches we play."

That being the case, and given his similarly onerous exertions earlier in the year in the Super 14, would it not make sense to leave Richie McCaw, the world's greatest player, at home in November when the All Blacks tour Britain and Ireland? After all, the northern hemisphere countries are not exactly slow to leave behind some of their top players when they tour in June.

Henry sounds shocked at the suggestion. For a start, he says, it would be against the tradition of All Blacks rugby. They will bring 35 players, some of them new, and McCaw will get a rest at times. But that is as far as it goes. "We are expected to play well in every Test match – there are huge expectations. Our style of play, as well as winning, is extremely important. So that luxury is not available to us. If you took those liberties, you wouldn't last."

Yet he takes the point. The All Blacks, he warns, will have to have some time out of the game to rest and recuperate otherwise they will fall over. But where the cavalry is most needed is to protect and nurture New Zealand's captain, a man of inestimable value. "It will be a priority to find a back-up No 7. Daniel Braid is one possibility but there are also one or two other guys we want to have a look at."

Replacing Captain McCaw ? That's a tough task, as even Henry acknowledges. "You will never get another McCaw, he's very very rare. He's not only pretty special, he's playing better than ever. But we need to find the best player behind Richie and develop him."

So how good does he think this side might become? "It's too early to say. I don't think we'll know that until this time next year. It will be interesting to see how some of the young guys develop on the northern hemisphere tour, starting in November. But there are many good young players coming through in New Zealand rugby and that definitely reinvigorates me. To have a [tournament] win and feel we have done something is stimulating in itself. It is a burden we have been carrying around for a while."

You could make the case quite easily that old Sisyphus had it easy, just having to push his stone up a hill. Graham Henry has been lugging the emotional baggage of a whole nation behind him ever since the World Cup failure. Does winning the Tri-Nations silence his critics? "I wouldn't think so, no," he says with a smile. "The knives are a little bit blunter for a while, that's all. But that's good, they have been pretty sharp and I've felt under a lot more pressure than ever before.

"When we won the final game in Brisbane, it was the first time I felt real peace for nine months. It was the only thing to put the Cardiff thing [their World Cup defeat by France] to rest, although it will never be totally put to rest. But maybe it's in the background now."

So he is perfectly relaxed now? Well, sort of. "It's a pleasant relief until the next game. The game and the need for success is always in the back of your mind. The expectations for the All Blacks in this country are unrealistic. They have to win and win well in every game. Whether you are rebuilding a team or not doesn't come into it. Yes, it is very tough for the guy at the top. But you don't have to apply for the job, do you?"

He says he has been hugely fortified by the people with whom he works. Not a man to dress his every sentence with superlatives, he calls them "fabulous" and insists he couldn't do the job without them. Nor does the progress made by some of the new All Blacks this year escape his attention. He points to Dunedin where New Zealand played 65 minutes with two locks who had one cap between them, almost unheard of in All Blacks folklore. "I have huge respect for the players. We were faced with a sudden-death situation; we had to win three games in a row against the other two best sides in the world. To do it was pretty special and it's a huge feather in the cap of rugby development in this country."

This process of building a new All Black squad ready for 2011 may have some surprising reinforcements. Henry says that Luke McAlister should be home for the next international season and Doug Howlett is also talking about returning. "I wouldn't be surprised if others are thinking the same way. We can't pick the overseas guys at the moment because of our policy, with which I agree incidentally. Then there's a guy like Joe Rokocoko who has been out for the whole Tri-Nations this year."

Suffice to say, the All Blacks coach believes there are plenty of grounds for cautious optimism.

The Experimental Law Variations

1. The Maul

Mauls can now be pulled down. However, this is not the same as collapsing a maul by any means possible, which remains illegal. A player pulling a maul down can only do so between the hips and shoulders of an opposing member of the maul.

* This law is designed to limit the dominance of powerful forward packs. It provides smaller teams with a weapon against the rolling maul and encourages sides to run the ball.

2. The Scrum

The offside line at the scrum is now five metres behind the hindmost foot of the scrum. This applies to both the attacking and defending sides. Previously the offside line was level with the back foot of the scrum.

* This aims to give the attacking side more time and space to run the ball off first-phase scrum-ball.

3. Kicking from the 22

If the team in possession of the ball take the ball back into their 22 by any means, whether it be by passing or running, and then kick it directly into touch, the resulting lineout will take place level with where the kick was made. Previously, this was only the case when the kicker himself ran the ball back into his 22; in any other event, the lineout had been where the ball crossed the line.

* The IRB believes that a game based on continually kicking the ball off the pitch becomes too stop-start. This law is therefore designed to force sides to keep the ball in play, rather than kick directly for touch.

4. Quick throws

Quick lineouts can now be thrown in backwards. Previously the laws only allowed the ball to be thrown in straight.

* This law enables players to restart the game quickly rather than wait for a formal lineout to take place.

5. The Lineout

The defending side no longer have to match the number of players in the attacking line. But each side must still have a minimum of two in their line.

* This aims to prevent either side dominating their own ball and it becomes easier for the side without the ball to disrupt the opposition's lineout.

6. Corner flags

A try is no longer disallowed if the ball-carrier touches the corner flag before grounding the ball if he has not yet been in touch. However, a try is still disallowed if the ball is grounded against the corner flag. If the ball hits the corner flag and bounces back into the playing area, the game now continues.

* This is designed to prevent tries being disallowed solely because players have touched the flag as they have crossed the line. It also simplifies the job of the TV match official.

Alex Lowe