New Year's Honours 2012: Graham Henry

Graham Henry. Photo / Richard Robinson
Graham Henry. Photo / Richard Robinson

Graham Henry calls himself a 4.30 man. It's the time he wakes up most mornings and it's a habit he's struggling to break, even though he's ended his long tenure as All Blacks coach and brought peace to not only his life but also most of New Zealand after delivering the Rugby World Cup to this country for the first time in 24 years.

The 65-year-old is a self-confessed workaholic and could often be found reviewing tape or working on game plans after waking in the early hours. It's part of the reason he was so successful, why the All Blacks won so many games under his watch and why he survived in 2007 when most Kiwis held him accountable for a certain defeat in Cardiff.

It's also why Henry woke up this morning as Sir Graham Henry. Little will change in his eyes. He will still be Ted, or the "Old Prick", and he's a little embarrassed he received an individual accolade in a team sport.

"It's a reflection on what a group of people achieved over a long period of time," he says. "It's an award that many people have a hand on.

"You happen to be sitting on the top of the heap. You're the coach, you get the honour and glory, but it could have been a number of people doing that and I could have been one of the helpers."

He might have been, but it wouldn't have fulfilled his ambitions. Henry is a goal-setter and in 1970 resolved to one day coach the All Blacks. He was a high school coach at that time, far removed from the top level of the game, but approached the task extremely seriously as he worked his way through the grades.

One who came under his intense gaze at Auckland Grammar School was a skinny, young first five-eighths by the name of Grant Fox.

Fox spent 10 years in teams coached by Henry - three at Auckland Grammar, five at the University club and two at Auckland - in an era before the game went professional. Both had to fit rugby around other demands but it didn't stop a pursuit of excellence.

"He was very analytical, very astute, very demanding," says Fox, who last week was named All Blacks selector in the new Steve Hansen regime. "He did an awful lot of planning, which was not that normal in Sir Graham sticks to early starts those days. I know he used the VCR machine a lot. He was probably an insomniac a lot of the time. He was meticulous and did a lot of homework ... and still does.

"The thing that sticks out is the passion he has for coaching. Even when times got really tough, and it was extremely tough post-2007, his burning desire to coach never diminished. I found that remarkable, really, because a lot of people would have said, 'Bugger this, I'm walking away.' Not him."

Many wanted him to after the 2007 World Cup. Although the All Blacks had achieved a period of unprecedented success - they won 37 of 40 test matches in a four-year cycle including a 3-0 whitewash of the Lions and second-ever Grand Slam - one of those three defeats clouded all other results.

The level of vitriol that followed the 20-18 quarter-final defeat by France was unimaginable and Henry, who had introduced a controversial rest and rotation policy in the leadup to the tournament, was blamed almost entirely.

The NZRU stuck by him and, in an unprecedented move, reappointed Henry and his assistants Hansen and Wayne Smith. It was widely unpopular, especially with Robbie Deans eager to take over, but was a key factor in the All Blacks' success four years later. It allowed lessons to be learned rather than a new regime to come in afresh and change the landscape.

He had learned lessons as coach of the unsuccessful Lions side to Australia in 2001 and even bigger ones with Wales when he went from being the Great Redeemer after 11 consecutive wins to someone who walked out on the job in 2002 after a record 54-10 defeat by Ireland.

"I left Wales because I was going to die there," he says. "I had done my thing. I had run out of steam, I had hit the wall, I had to get out. If I hadn't done that, I wouldn't be here.

"I am proud of going to war and trying to do the job properly, hanging in when things got tough, showing a bit of tenacity. You only learn that through experiences. If I hadn't gone through the Welsh and British Lions experiences, I wouldn't have survived 2007."

There's a fine line between success and failure in sport. In the case of this year's World Cup, it was one point as the All Blacks beat France 8-7 in the final. It was a very important point and one that not only established the legacy of the current All Blacks but also Henry.

Things could very easily have ended differently. Henry might now be exiling himself on Waiheke Island rather than enjoying a well-deserved break there.

He hasn't watched the World Cup final again. He probably will but hasn't felt compelled to relive it.

Prime Minister John Key wanted to give Richie McCaw a knighthood as well but the All Blacks captain turned it down. Henry says McCaw's time will come and he probably feels uncomfortable about leading the team with anything other than C for captain beside his name.

It's impossible to know if the All Blacks would have won under another coach, but what is indisputable is Henry retires with an incredible record that includes 88 wins in 103 tests as All Blacks coach. He was also a five-time winner of the IRB Coach of the Year award (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011).

"To do 140 test matches is pretty pleasing," he says. "I don't want to sound big-headed but the next highest is 97 by an international coach and that's Bernard Laporte [of France]. There is some tension, some pressure. There's a marvellous expectation. I call it marvellous because if there wasn't that expectation the team wouldn't achieve what it achieves. With that come scrutiny, pressure, expectation, which takes its toll."

Because of that, Henry knew some time ago he would retire after the World Cup.

"I'm normally not particularly in favour of knighthoods, unless it's for a pretty special community act, but Graham is about excellence over a sustained period of time," says Wayne Smith, who worked alongside Henry as All Blacks assistant for eight years. "He's just given everything he had for this and it's never been just for himself. With Graham it's always about the team but also the country and really understanding how important it was for everyone.

"This has been the product of years and years and years of battling away and going through good times and bad, and just getting on and doing the best we could. And he has won it. It wasn't just a one-off. It was years and years of work and the stuff beyond the call of duty that I think means that he's a worthy recipient."

Henry will continue to get up early each morning. It's part of who he is. He is likely to mentor coaches from next year, not just rugby, and has his hand in a couple of businesses such as the coaching website he operates with Smith and others like McCaw, Dan Carter and Springboks Victor Matfield and Bismarck du Plessis. He might also find himself heading down to All Blacks training out of habit.

But the events of October 23, 2011, make it easier to let go. He feels "complete". He also has a lot more friends than he did in 2007, and some of them might even call him Sir Graham.

KNZM

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