Henry and Mitchell 'not poles apart'

By Daniel Gilhooly

LONDON - All Black coach Graham Henry and his predecessor John Mitchell are certainly not peas from the same pod but their rugby playing philosophies and winning record are surprisingly comparable.

Those who bemoan Henry's player rotation methods only need reminding it was Mitchell who broke the mould when it came to mass team changes.

Those who laud Henry's outstanding win-loss ratio since taking over in 2004 -- 28 from 32 tests -- may also recall Mitchell totted up a pretty fair 23 from 28, with one draw.

And Henry has stuck by and large to a core of players who were introduced by Mitchell, an audacious but an adept selector of talent.

Mitchell had his shortcomings off the field and Henry's sharing of the coaching/managerial load has improved several aspects, while the strengthening of the scrum and breakdown presence have been notable improvements.

However, it is this month's tour of Europe where Henry has departed most drastically from the course that Mitchell traversed into the 2003 World Cup in Australia.

With Cup success on the fields of France next year now to the forefront of everything, Henry has selected his strongest possible squad for the tests this month against England, France (twice) and Wales.

They are the same opponents, and in the same order, that Mitchell's men faced late in 2002.

However, those tourists were comprised largely of fresh-faced newcomers as nearly 20 of the players who won that year's Tri-Nations title were given early summer leave.

The result was a loss to England at Twickenham, a lucky draw with France and a defeat of the Welsh.

Crucially, it represented a loss of the momentum building that year and further belief within Clive Woodward's English camp.

Henry's thinking, clearly, is to not hand deliver any November cheer to their biggest rivals in Europe.

A stated aim is to find his best team on this tour. An unstated goal will be to win every game, sending a statement of intent hard to ignore.

He was impressed but unswayed by the form of such players as Liam Messam and Richard Kahui (both Waikato) during the Air New Zealand Cup.

This tour is not so much about development. Honing of the group he has moulded over three years and building on their culture of success is the bigger deal.

By resting a group of 22 players for the first half of next year's Super 14, the bulk of Henry's 30-man Cup is clearly fait accompli.

Critics say Henry's focus is too narrow. With 11 tests to unfold before the World Cup there is, they say, time enough to assess other playing options on form.

Michael Jones, Andrew Mehrtens, Josh Kronfeld and Jonah Lomu were players who stamped their mark at World Cups despite a lack of test, or even provincial, experience.

Henry responds simply by highlighting New Zealand's awful record on the grandest stage since 1987, reasoning it is pointless to follow what didn't work in those campaigns.

It's hard to argue against.

Henry is headed down the path of world champions England in the leadup to 2003.

Woodward moulded a core group of players over a long period.

Their experience combined with a 35-from-40 test winning record post-1999 gave them an air of invincibility which carried them over the line in Australia.

It would surprise if either England or Wales can topple the All Blacks this month but the twin internationals against France carry great intrigue.

To see where the power in Europe lies needs just a glance at the current standings in Europe's elite Heineken Cup club competition.

French clubs sit atop four of the six pools while English clubs wallow, reflecting well the slump of the national team since 2003.

France have rebounded from their mauling by Henry's men in Paris two years ago. They will have revenge on their mind and, when mentally tuned, can play with the ferocity and dynamicism to knock these well-oiled All Blacks off their stride.

Henry demands improvements this month even though his team are fresh off a 15-test winning steak, ended last start with a tired defeat by the Springboks in Rustenburg.

"We're pleased with the attitude of the group and their ability to play under pressure and win games which go to the wire," he said at the outset of the tour.

"We're about 75 per cent there but would just like to be a bit more precise. It's about making the right decisions on the field, it's about finishing off our attacking opportunities, which we didn't do particularly well in the Tri-Nations."

Perhaps the beefiest touring squad ever -- 42 per cent of the squad are tight forwards -- it is crucial the All Blacks' faltering lineout starts to hum.

That will dish up better opportunities for a backline yet to realise the potential Henry says will be needed late next year.

"Given the hard grounds, I think the games will be pretty free-flowing. My gut feeling is that it won't be won by a defence-orientated side.

"So this tour is a big one for us; it is our last chance to play in Europe before the World Cup."

Mitchell didn't think so. He gave his big guns leave at this time four years ago.

Almost all of Henry's hopefuls are here, knowing their break will comes in February and March.

- NZPA

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