Rugby: 'I thought I'd lost my job', says Henry

By Wynne Gray

His job interview completed, Graham Henry thought his All Black coaching career was over.

Late last year as the New Zealand Rugby Union - and the country - debated the outcome, Henry returned to his hotel room where he confided his fears to wife Raewyn. He thought the World Cup quarterfinal defeat was the full-stop on his All Black life.

"I was the last to be interviewed and after it I thought 'no, it's not going to happen'," he recalls.

After an unsettled night's sleep, Henry went for an early-morning run around the Wellington waterfront trying to settle his anxiety. "I did not think the meeting went that smoothly. I was a bit uptight. It was just a gut feel I had," he says. "I didn't think I was going to get the job."

Henry's intuition was astray, and the 62-year-old and his panel of Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith were reappointed for another two seasons. It had been an emotionally taxing process from the Cardiff calamity to his reappointment. It took Henry some time before he decided to re-apply.

"I stood because of the support, but I was never that confident because this is the first time an All Black coach has been re-appointed for longer than four years.

So there wasn't a lot of history to back it. Robbie [Deans] was a fine candidate, too, so there was some real competition.

"I was prepared to move on if that was the case but I - and we - would not have stood except for the support we got. Because you are representing other people, I think that makes it more stressful."

Henry says he is is refreshed after extended holidays in Australia, the Bay of Islands and Canada.

"[The pressure of the job] takes its toll. It is not easy and you need to be able to handle it quite frankly - and the only way you can deal with that is not read it, write it, look at it.

"The public have been outstanding. I have never known them to be so supportive and I have never had so much obvious support since I began coaching rugby. In the airports, streets, at the supermarket - all over the place - that sort of encouragement, and from all the [NZRU] people in Wellington, has been phenomenal."

But not all were convinced of Henry's merits for a second term.

The Herald was one of many voices to call for change.

"I thought most of the media lacked balance and were quite vindictive," says Henry. "It got quite personal and, as I say, I did not read it, I did not watch it, I did not listen to it - but I was told and I was disappointed about that. I thought they were over the top, and it was just great the New Zealand public made up their own mind.

"In the main, I don't believe the media reflected public opinion; they tried to sway public opinion. They tried to be kingmakers and kingbreakers," says the All Black coach in his first interview with the Herald since his reappointment.

"I don't know why they want to do that, but that's up to them, really."

Bad news for those angered by the resting of key players throughout 2007. Henry stands by conditioning. He concedes the timing of the programme last year was a mistake - it caused too many problems and anxieties - but he maintains it is imperative players have the same opportunity in future seasons.

He plans to work out a solution for conditioning with the Super 14 franchises this year.

So the All Blacks will continue to pick the "most appropriate sides" to play each week - for that, read rest and rotation will carry on.

"Our objective has not changed. We want to win every test match and we pick the appropriate people to try and do that. That won't change. Player welfare, injury - those things come into that, and you have to take that into account and pick the players who are going to do the business for you."

But whatever you do when visiting the Henry household, don't say the R-word. "We need to get away from the word rotation - it is a swear word for New Zealand rugby, it doesn't help the game."

Henry will not talk about his intentions beyond the end of his deal to 2009 nor will he discuss whether - as many suspect - the next two years of his reign is about grooming Steve Hansen as his successor.

Instead he is looking at the challenges which begin with a domestic three-test run against Ireland then England - which start a week after the Super 14 final - in tests which revert to the old rules.

The Tri-Nations campaign follows and then five tests on consecutive weekends with a match against the Wallabies in Hong Kong prefacing another Grand Slam challenge.

New players have to be found to replace those like Carl Hayman, Chris Jack, Keith Robinson, Byron Kelleher, Luke McAlister and Aaron Mauger, who have gone overseas or retired.

As always, Henry keeps his cards close to his chest, but he did appear lukewarm to the idea of Daniel Carter playing in midfield - he still considers the young man, who never really fired at the World Cup, to be the best first five-eighth in the world.

But there's one card the coach is happy to reveal: Richie McCaw will continue as Henry's captain. "Of course he is. He is a bloody good captain. He is a marvellous player who leads by example and has probably the most successful record of any All Black captain of all time if you look at games won and games lost," said Henry.

"There is no reason to change. People look at the test match in Cardiff, the quarterfinal, and say why did we lose that test match? "They say the leadership wasn't right, and I would debate that strongly.

He captained the All Blacks in that test match like he captains the All Black side in a number of test matches which he has won by doing certain things - which didn't eventuate on that particular day for some reasons which are beyond our control."

Four months after his dazzling coaching record was battered by France's 20-18 victory in Cardiff, Henry still refuses to elaborate on the wider causes for the All Blacks failure. Again, the cards are close to the chest, but you can sense his displeasure about the work of referee Wayne Barnes and touch judges Jonathan Kaplan and Tony Spreadbury. He will not go there, nor does he want to revisit his team selections. They were, he said, the best for that quarterfinal. Carter, McCaw - everyone who played in that international got a medical clearance to play.

"Because we lost people are looking for a reason, but that is not a reason. But there are learnings from that game we have to take on board," Henry said.

"I have always said we did not play as well as we hoped we would play. The French played better than we expected them to play, and we did not get the rub of the green or the bounce of the ball. That is what I will continue to say."

No matter how hard he's pushed, Henry won't publicly join the Kiwi lynch mob bagging referee Barnes.

"I think it is a hell of an important thing to have some dignity in these matters.

"I think it is very important for the All Black team that they are not seen to be using excuses for why they lost - or the All Black management or coaches.

But he opens up a little when talking about the experimental law variations, and shares his concerns.

"One I hear about is taking the ball into the tackle area and I hear teams are not going to be doing that for fear of losing possession, and that will decrease the amount of attack and involve more kicking," he said.

"You will get more conservative attacking play, and that is the last thing you want. But trialling it in the best franchise competition in the world will be a huge plus."

His All Blacks will continue to play an attractive style - it was a method which best suited the players. It was not about entertainment, it was about getting the best out of New Zealand's leading players.

Henry says he still has more to give. "I wouldn't be doing this unless I thought I was progressing and that is part of the All Black culture, that you are always trying to get better."

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