Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Knight of the long knives

Graham Henry started helping the Pumas just six months after the World Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Graham Henry started helping the Pumas just six months after the World Cup. Photo / Getty Images

Sir Graham Henry's presence in the Pumas coaching box last night was more a unifying rather than a motivating factor for the All Blacks.

This time last year, it was both and the true extent of how senior All Blacks felt about it was never fully divulged. No one wanted to say much - some of the players had been instrumental in persuading Henry to reapply for the All Black job in 2007, had nothing but respect and admiration for their former coach and they wanted to keep the matter in-house.

A year on, and with emotions less raw and the greater perspective that time affords, it doesn't seem so important.

But at the time there was surprise and disappointment that less than six months after coaching the All Blacks to World Cup glory, Henry was working for another international side.

The confusion as to the nature of his involvement with the Pumas enhanced the tension.

Initially Henry signed up to be a short-term consultant to the Pumas coaching team - a sounding board to help them develop their skills and wider high-performance programme.

Given the momentous nature of the task facing the Pumas, there was an acceptance within the All Black camp that while it wasn't ideal for Henry to be offering a helping hand, it was at least with noble intention.

Henry's role with the Pumas appeared to change, though, on the eve of the Rugby Championship. From being a coach for the coaches, he seemed to become more hands-on with the players - providing technical, tactical and motivational advice.

When Henry then came to Wellington with the Pumas, bedecked in official tracksuit and photographed in the huddle at training, there was concern among senior All Blacks that their former guiding light had committed the reasonably serious offence of making off with intellectual property that wasn't necessarily his to sell.

Harder yet to accept was the thought that someone with intimate knowledge of the All Blacks' individual and collective strengths and weaknesses was entrenched in the enemy camp. Rugby evolves quickly - tactics, patterns and players all move on, but while much of Henry's knowledge would be redundant, it was more the principle that irked.

Throughout the past few years, the players had been preached to about loyalty, respect for the jersey and all that and with those words still ringing in their ears, the man who said them had signed up to help Argentina.

The scale of the reaction to these double-standards was more tut-tut, hands on hips, head shaking as opposed to full-scale toy hurling, but still, most of the All Blacks who had been involved during Henry's reign would have preferred for him to have politely declined Argentina's request for help.

That he didn't ended up being a blessing of sorts. Given the length and success of Henry's tenure, there was always a danger that his shadow would be hanging over the All Blacks long after he left. Steve Hansen, having been the assistant for eight years, was trying to establish his mark as head coach.

He was doing an exceptional job of that as it was, but Henry's role with the Pumas provided a clean severance point. Seeing Hansen coach against his former mentor has removed any notion of there being any lingering remnants of the Henry era within the All Blacks.

Hansen has been put in the unusual position of having to out-think, out-coach and out-manoeuvre Henry. That's been as challenging and refreshing as it has been slightly weird and disappointing.

The presence of Henry within the Pumas sharpened the All Black planning and analysis last week. They had to double-check everything, knowing that Henry would be unpicking what he had seen in the first two Australian tests.

Removing the emotion of it all, it has been no bad thing for Hansen to be pitted against Henry, still one of the great analysts and thinkers on the game. Besides the demands it has made of his coaching skills, it has also meant there is no ambiguity.

The All Blacks are Hansen's team, from selection to game plan to culture. The World Cup is a distant memory - everyone has moved on and everything we have seen from the All Blacks in the past 12 months has been generated and honed by Hansen and his coaching team. There is no shadow - no silhouette perceived to be pulling strings in the background.

The pass-and-catch strike power of the All Blacks has its origins in the Henry era but has been advanced by Hansen. The total rugby theory, again, is not new - just much improved in the last two years.

The players have also moved closer to Hansen in the past 12 months and again the Henry saga helped. It unified the side, made them want to build everything afresh and enhanced their desire to establish a new way of doing things.

There probably haven't been many quiet phone calls to 'Ted', seeking a bit of friendly advice or to offload about any gripes with the way Hansen is doing things. Instead, the wagons have circled tighter - the standing of Hansen and Richie McCaw has grown and so too has the aura of the All Blacks.

- Herald on Sunday

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