Wales 'homecoming' adds twist for Henry and Hansen

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The Independent Online

There was a bizarre feeling to events yesterday, hearing two Wales coaches talking about New Zealand looking for a victory, but then, it is an unprecedented situation.

There was a bizarre feeling to events yesterday, hearing two Wales coaches talking about New Zealand looking for a victory, but then, it is an unprecedented situation.

Two of the All Blacks coaching team are former Wales coaches, and at times it was hard to tell whose side Graham Henry (1998-2002) and Steve Hansen (2002-2004) were on.

Mike Ruddock may be the new man in charge of Wales, but both Henry and Hansen slipped into their old roles at times, using the first person plural when referring to their opponents. "I say 'we' all the time when I am referring to Wales," confessed Hansen, now an assistant coach with the All Blacks.

Henry fared no better letting slip a "we" as well when discussing the team his youthful All Black side tackles at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon.

"It's good to be back," intoned the former Auckland headmaster, who is unique among rugby coaches in that he has been head coach of three international teams: Wales, the British and Irish Lions in 2001 and now New Zealand.

"I enjoy the Welsh environment and I feel very comfortable here. I feel like it's a second home. People have been great."

Neither man is given to displays of emotion, but it was easy to detect a frisson of something, pride perhaps when Hansen said: "I know that like me, Graham is looking forward to walking down the tunnel at the Millennium Stadium and out on to the pitch on Saturday. There's going to be 78,000 there, it's going to be a great old day."

But the former New Zealand policeman has one dread which he has confessed to. "When we arrive at the ground and go up the steps into the changing-rooms area I am terrified of turning right, towards the home dressing room, instead of left to the visitors' dressing room."

He can be excused that error, though, especially in the light of what Henry feels about the two countries and their fixation on the game. "This a huge fixture. I don't think you will find another fixture to match this anywhere else in the world. These are the only two nations where rugby is part of the culture. It is a part of their fabric, part of their history. It is their number one sport. It means a huge amount to the people of the two countries."

It was in the 2003 World Cup that Wales, then coached by Hansen, stunned the All Blacks by going desperately close to pulling off a shock win. "That was the start of the way Wales are playing now," said Hansen.

But not all is sweetness and light for the tourists. For the second day running they were forced to train indoors because their boots, along with toothpaste, underwear and other sundry items, were still in transit from Rome after being thrown off their weekend charter flight to Wales following the match against Italy.

It did not stop Henry from naming his team, which shows nine changes from that which hammered the Italians.

"These are not wholesale changes," insisted Henry. "We have retained a nucleus, we have just done what we planned to do prior to leaving New Zealand." Which was to ensure that everyone had a run-out in the opening two fixtures.

There are two new caps, scrum-half Piri Weepu and the pacey centre Casey Laulala, in a side that is captained by Richie McCaw in the absence of Tana Umaga, who is rested. Wales make three changes with Sonny Parker, Shane Williams and Brent Cockbain all returning from injury. A trio of casualties, Hal Luscombe (knee), Luke Charteris (toe) and Rhys Williams all miss out.

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