Peter Bills: Coaching stats offer good news for Henry

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All Blacks Coach Graham Henry. Photo / Christine Cornege
All Blacks Coach Graham Henry. Photo / Christine Cornege

Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap ...

Was it a sound of my imagination, or that of the scaffold being assembled at the bottom of Queen St, just in case it all goes wrong for the All Blacks in Sunday's World Cup semifinal against Australia.

No prizes for guessing who would be first up the steps on to the platform for the sport of head slicing. But it may not come to that for there is good news for All Black coach Graham Henry.

Thus far, six men have coached countries to the ultimate glory of a Rugby World Cup triumph. Brian Lochore did it in 1987, Bob Dwyer for Australia in 1991, Kitch Christie for South Africa in 1995, Rod Macqueen for the Wallabies in 1999, Clive Woodward with England in 2003 and Jake White with the Springboks in 2007.

Why is that good news for Henry? It means that four of the six winning World Cup coaches never played international rugby. Henry didn't either, so the trend could well be extended by the end of this tournament.

Surely if New Zealand are successful under Henry, five World Cup-winning coaches who never played the game at test level in seven tournaments would be a pretty convincing statistic.

Waiting in the wings to disprove this theory are Warren Gatland of Wales (he wore the All Black jersey), Robbie Deans of Australia and Marc Lievremont of France, coaches of the three remaining semifinalists. So there may be a growing trend that suggests in the modern game it has become more important to have a coach with test match experience.

But it is an intriguing theory. The analogy in education is that you can get a BA Hons degree in any subject but it doesn't necessarily follow you can teach it. Why use education as an analogy? Well, the interesting thing is that both Jake White and Graham Henry are former headmasters, rather than ex-rugby test players. So maybe the thread leads us to believe that those used to teaching pupils and inculcating knowledge of whatever kind are maybe potentially better international rugby coaches than someone who played at the highest level.

Manifestly, another falsehood is to believe that because someone played the game highly successfully at the very top level, they can automatically become a great coach. There have been myriad examples of great players becoming hugely disappointing coaches.

Francois Pienaar never cut the mustard in that field; Martin Johnson has floundered at this World Cup in such a role. Daniel Dubroca was a fine French front row forward but he never really impressed as a coach. Willie John McBride was an inspirational player but he never hacked it as Ireland coach, lasting just one season.

In South Africa, Rudolf Straeuli and Carel du Plessis were both fine players and became Springbok coaches yet neither achieved very much as national coach. By stark comparison, Kitch Christie, who never played rugby at an exalted level, coached the Springboks from 1994 to 1996 and had a 100 per cent winning record.

If personal quality on the field as a player was the sole criterion for success as a coach, a whole host of brilliant players would have gone on to succeed in the coaching arena: the likes of Wilson Whineray, Jean Pierre Rives, Mark Ella, Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and David Campese to name but a few.

Yet none did. They knew intrinsically they could not automatically transfer their inherent knowledge of the game into the skills required to mentor others. Genius doesn't necessarily translate in that respect. Bob Dwyer has always been a pretty self-effacing sort of guy. But he has some firm views on the subject.

"I think they are two separate roles entirely we are talking about. A great player probably focuses almost exclusively on his own performance and the intricacies involved in achieving that level of display.

"Whether he is someone able to put aside that rigid focus on self at the end of his career and formulate a strategy for a whole team or, these days, an entire squad is something else entirely.

"It isn't easy or straightforward to do that. Maybe in some respects, someone who has been used to devising an overall strategy of operation, whether it be in business or education, is better qualified than a guy [who is a test veteran] however brilliant he may have been as a player. A lot is down to the individual, the type of person involved."

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