Smith the tactician to coach All Blacks

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The Independent Online

A chastened collection of New Zealand Rugby Football Union movers and shakers yesterday decided against spin-passing the All Black baby in the same direction as the bath water by naming Wayne Smith as their national coach. The 42-year-old tactician behind Canterbury Crusaders' two-year domination of the Super 12 series replaces John Hart, who threw in the towel after his side's World Cup play-off defeat by South Africa in the first week of November.

A chastened collection of New Zealand Rugby Football Union movers and shakers yesterday decided against spin-passing the All Black baby in the same direction as the bath water by naming Wayne Smith as their national coach. The 42-year-old tactician behind Canterbury Crusaders' two-year domination of the Super 12 series replaces John Hart, who threw in the towel after his side's World Cup play-off defeat by South Africa in the first week of November.

Smith won 17 caps for New Zealand between 1980 and 1985 - he played two Tests against Ciaran Fitzgerald's Lions in '83 - but, more pertinently, he served under Hart in coaching and advisory roles during the Aucklander's four-year national reign. Shrewd judges wondered whether the ultimate failure of the Hart regime would render Smith guilty by association and persuade the NZRFU to look elsewhere, but the board took the view that his long All Black apprenticeship and recent achievements at provincial level made him the choice candidate.

Tony Gilbert, the Otago Highlanders coach, has been appointed as Smith's assistant, giving the new All Black hierarchy a dream team appearance: Canterbury and Otago contested the Super 12 final last season and are by common consent the most able outfits south of the equator. But the pair have been given two-year contracts rather than the customary four, and will have to re-apply for their jobs before leading New Zealand into the 2003 World Cup.

"Both Tony and I understand that the All Blacks are a precious jewel and that we are keepers of it only for a short time," said Smith. "I'm the coach and the buck stops with me, but we have the same values - we both like teams that are relentless, that show a lot of character. Selection-wise, the field is wide open. If players want a place in the All Blacks, they will have to act and play like All Blacks."

New Zealand being New Zealand, there will be next to no honeymoon for the Smith-Gilbert duopoly; Hart's failure at the World Cup merely increased expectation levels and the pressure is on Smith to deliver something acceptable at the first available opportunity. He will get his chance next summer when Scotland arrive for a two-Test tour.

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