When the Welsh Rugby Union, reacting to the country's 96-13 massacre in South Africa in 1998, opted for a radical change, the world was their oyster. They wanted the best coach that money could buy and came up with Graham Henry, the pearl of Auckland, as the great outside reformer. By last Sunday it appeared as if the world of Welsh rugby had sunk to the horizons of a Dublin Bay prawn. The reaction to another hopeless display, the 54-10 defeat to Ireland at Lansdowne Road, was similar to the Pretoria post mortem – change the coach.
Before a meeting of the general committee last Thursday Henry was history and his fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen was put in charge, at least until the end of the Six Nations' Championship. Henry jumped, but not before he was pushed. Glanmor Griffiths, the chairman, and the majority on the 27-man committee, wanted him to stay.
The débâcle in Dublin was Hansen's introduction to the Six Nations, after which he said it was just one of those days and Wales would have to return to basics. If it had been just one of those days Henry might have stayed. Wales were awful when they completed the delayed championship last October, losing to Ireland 36-6 in Cardiff. Getting hammered in South Africa is one thing; conceding 90 points and nine tries while scoring one in two matches against Ireland something else.
Summing up the mood of a nation, Dennis Gethin, the secretary of the WRU, who could not see his desk for a mountain of letters, said: "I don't think there's a word in any language to describe what happened in Ireland." Henry's abrupt departure became a mutual decision. "Both sides have thought deeply about it and believe it has been taken with the best interests of Welsh rugby in mind," Griffiths said. It was with the same interests that Henry was head-hunted.
Although he was next in line to succeed John Hart as coach of the All Blacks, Henry could not resist the challenge and a five-year contract – he thought it would be 18 months – worth £1.25m. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union promptly imposed a ban on any overseas coach getting their top job. In the event Hart was dismissed after New Zealand were humbled by France in the semi-finals of the 1999 World Cup, a result that had as traumatic an effectas Wales's capitulation last Sunday. In Dublin, the players did not appear to be playing for their country, Henry or themselves. Afterwards most blamed the coach.
"I've got to take a look at myself in the mirror and ask some harsh questions," Henry said. "I still think I'm a good coach, but I'm not coaching as well as I can. The intensity of the rugby Wales and the Lions have played has led to a burn-out factor. It is no knee-jerk reaction but, being brutally honest, I feel the time has come for the team to hear a new voice."
Contracted to take Wales into the World Cup next year, Henry's job became uncomfortable after a few dissenting voices during the Lions tour – most falsetto notes belonged to adolescent Englishmen who did not make the Test team – grew last week to a full male voice choir.
Central to his methods was the so-called pod system, which involved up to five phases of orchestrated play: win a line-out and three forwards become a pod; one of the centres sets up a ruck, which is joined by another three men; a prop and a lock run a designated line to set up the next pod, which in turn is expected to be taken on by a couple of the backs.
There were three fatal flaws. It did not work against modern, organised defences, there was no plan B and the players, on recent evidence, could not master phase one let alone phases four or five. The players, on £5,000 a match, said little in public, but privately they were asking: "What the hell are we trying to do?" One coach said: "Graham hadn't moved on from 1998. It was as if he was in a time warp. You have to play to the strengths of the team not the team to your ideas."
It had all started so promisingly. Between March and August 1999, Wales won 10 matches in a row including a first victory over South Africa and a rare series win in Argentina, and Henry's conversion took on an almost Biblical tone when he was called the Great Redeemer, as in the hymn "Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer", a Welsh rugby classic.
At that stage the one-time headmaster gave the impression that not only had he become the first coach to straddle the Cook Strait and the River Severn but he had done so without getting his feet wet.
Viewing the scene with a mixture of bemusement and awe, Henry always said Wales were handicapped by their structure. "My predecessors were in a no-win situation," he once said. "I've got time to put it right. It's a total deal. I didn't come here to be a scapegoat and I'm sure the WRU wouldn't have appointed me if they weren't going to take note. I've got five years and two World Cups and if that isn't enough I should be shot."
Henry wanted to reverse 130 years of history and merge the leading clubs into stronger squads that could compete in Europe. The politics of envy had already ensured he was a target in some quarters and his plans for reform created more enemies. Nothing has been done.
Another serious setback was the loss of Steve Black, his inspirational fitness coach, to Newcastle. There was also the curious case of Terry Cobner, Wales's director of rugby. When Wales were losing by almost 100 points in Pretoria, Cobner was at Johannesburg airport, en route to New Zealand and a meeting with Henry. Cobner got his man but thereafter the two hardly exchanged a word. Prior to Henry's arrival, the coach would report to Cobner. Once the Kiwi had landed, the paths of team managers and the director of rugby never crossed.
Henry, pointing to England, wanted specialist coaches and got them, with Hansen, the strategist Scott Johnson and Clive Griffiths in charge of defence, all recruited. The odd man out is Griffiths – he's Welsh. The role of assistant coach was advertised last year at a salary of £70,000. Henry identified Hansen, successfully coaching Canterbury, as the man for the job. It is understood that Hansen, who has just bought a house in Cardiff, was appointed on £175,000 a year to 2004. More envy, more enemies.
Johnson, an Australian, has been made assistant coach with Griffiths assistant to the assistant. Wales tour South Africa in June but Hansen, the Great Receiver, doesn't have time to think about that. Tomorrow he announces a team to play France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Meanwhile Henry – his pay-off is less than £100,000 – will be at home, the Coach House, at least until late summer. His wife Raewen is coach of the Wales netball team and she will take them to the Commonwealth Games.
"The trouble in Wales is we have fanatical supporters who want everything here and now," Andy Moore, the Wales A scrum-half, said. "We still like to think of ourselves as a great rugby nation, but we don't have the players or the standards. The skill levels aren't that good but how many players do something about it?" It is not Henry's fault that Cardiff, Swansea and Iestyn Harris are not performing or that the A team lost by 50 points to Ireland, or that the decision makers on the field cannot make a decision.
Wales's decline seems to be so deep-rooted they look as if they're pushing up daisies. This is where Henry came in.