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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: From Wright to wrong it's tough at the top

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While Sir Graham Henry  got the knighthood, John Wright got eased out. Picture /  Mark Mitchell
While Sir Graham Henry got the knighthood, John Wright got eased out. Picture / Mark Mitchell

Out on your ear, and often with no good reason ... it's all too often the lot of those guiding top sports teams to be found wanting by people not competent to judge

The dizzying ups and downs of a coach's existence have been compared to a rollercoaster ride or being stuck in a lift that shuttles from the basement to the penthouse and back, seldom stopping at the floors in between.

Perhaps it's more like long-haul air travel: you have long stretches when it's easy to forget you're in the unnatural and potentially hazardous position of being in an aluminium tube 10km above the ground, there are bumpy periods which are flagged in advance by an instruction from the cockpit to strap yourself in, and there's clear-air turbulence which strikes without warning, usually just after you've decided it's safe to unbuckle your seatbelt and enjoy the flight.

In a week when Sir Graham Henry was knighted, there were several reminders of this knife-edge existence in which reputations ebb and flow, often at the whim of those who don't possess the evidence or expertise to pronounce judgment.

Sir Fred Allen, the grand old man of New Zealand rugby, was given a send-off befitting a statesman. Amid the eulogising, however, there was little mention of the fact that he was dumped by the NZRU despite the All Blacks not losing a game under his stewardship.

It was appropriate that fellow rugby knight Sir Colin Meads was a pallbearer seeing Allen's loyalty to the man known as "Pinetree" almost certainly contributed to his effective sacking.

As revealed in TP, the biography of legendary Herald rugby writer Terry McLean, Allen was advised by NZRU chairman Tom Morrison that his council would be pleased if Meads and a couple of other hard-nosed operators, Ken Gray and Bruce McLeod, weren't selected for the 1967/68 tour of Britain and France.

Allen took no notice: "They were three of our best players and I was buggered if I was going to leave them at home."

Meanwhile, you could have been excused for thinking that an anxious nation gnawed its fingernails down to the quick while Wayne Smith weighed up an offer to join the England coaching staff.

You have to wonder what Smith made of all the fuss, given his termination by the NZRU in 2001 after a moment of candour (thus becoming the only All Black coach since 1987 denied the opportunity to take the team to a World Cup) and frequent portrayal as alarmingly otherworldly (a particularly vociferous critic dubbed him "the mad professor") during his eight years as Henry's assistant.

It turns out he's actually an asset of inestimable value, a coaching genius whose defection to England would have transformed the sleeping giant into an unstoppable juggernaut.

Steve Hansen even floated the idea of Smith having another crack at coaching the All Blacks, surely the first time an international coach has nominated his successor before he's even sent a team on to the field.

Then there's John Wright. Having been made to wait while other, less qualified individuals were given the chance to prove they weren't cut out to coach the Black Caps, Wright chose to walk away from the job rather than work in a set-up that seems to have been designed with the specific purpose of making him walk away from the job.

Like the Government's attempt to restructure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Cricket's tinkering with the head coach role is an attempt to reinvent the wheel by people who should never have been allowed in the workshop.

The only saving grace is that no one would have been less surprised than Wright himself. Before becoming coach he'd worked for NZC for several years and therefore would have been under no illusions about the nature of the beast.

And he wouldn't have forgotten the advice he got from the late Bob Woolmer when he was coaching India: "There are no happy endings."

In Woolmer's case, it was all too prophetic; he died, almost certainly of a heart attack, in a hotel room in Jamaica hours after watching minnows Ireland eliminate his Pakistan team from the 2007 World Cup. Even then he wasn't permitted to rest in peace: the local pathologist and constabulary decided foul play had occurred and opened a murder investigation that made Thomson and Thompson look like Starsky and Hutch.

Few coaches would be more aware of the vicissitudes of their profession than soccer's Roy Hodgson, who has managed 16 teams in eight countries. In 2009/10 he was voted manager of the year by his peers. Liverpool then came calling, but sacked him after 31 games in charge, the shortest tenure in the club's history.

This week he became the England manager. The Sun greeted his appointment by devoting its front page to mocking his speech impediment: "Woy gets England job. Bwing on the euwos."

- NZ Herald

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