All Blacks: Eyes fixed on cup prize

By Gregor Paul

All Blacks coach Graham Henry has got used to criticism and recognises New Zealanders have high expectations. Photo / Getty Images
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has got used to criticism and recognises New Zealanders have high expectations. Photo / Getty Images

It is a sharp irony - one of the most successful All Black coaches ever still struggles to gain widespread appreciation. Gregor Paul talks to Graham Henry ahead of the Tri Nations and hears the unusual comment that the All Blacks could lose; and it could be beneficial.

Graham Henry knows life is not a popularity contest. But you suspect he would like to be more appreciated than he is.

That's not because he needs to feel he has stolen a piece of the nation's heart. As a former headmaster, Henry is long-used to his name being scrawled on toilet walls with abuse attached. His skin is thick enough that the endless barbs don't penetrate.

What troubles him, makes him feel disappointed more than bitter, is that during his tenure, the All Blacks have amassed a scarcely believable success rate, won every trophy bar one, yet he's never once in six years been able to put his flak jacket away.

Certain pockets of the public have never warmed to him and as a consequence have failed to respect what he and the All Blacks have achieved.

"I have got used to it," he says. "You just think that is the environment you have to put up with and you get on with it. There has been some balance. Some people have written some reasonably objective articles. Some people will never change because that is their agenda. They have got that agenda and they are going to see it through to the end."

Having been dubbed the Great Redeemer for winning 10 tests in a row as coach of Wales, Henry knows that other nations have a greater ability to celebrate and appreciate success.

Since 2004 the All Blacks have won 86 per cent of their tests. No other serious rugby nation has a record remotely comparable but that's never been enough for New Zealanders. For the last 18 months the knives have been sharpened and tipped with poison.

He's been the get-out for media on a slow news day - when there's nothing doing, ask whether Henry should be retained as All Black coach. With the fuse lit, stand back and watch the explosion.

Even when the All Blacks were slicing and dicing the British Lions, wiping the floor with the Boks and Wallabies and romping through Europe in 2005 and 2006, there was still an undercurrent of discontent.

Whatever Henry did, it wasn't right. Neither hearts nor minds could be won and the rest of the world watched bemused. The likes of France, England and Ireland were in awe of Henry's All Blacks. How could New Zealanders find reason for complaint?

To those looking in, it seems as if New Zealand will remain in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction as long as Henry is at the helm - which he will be for another two years. When the All Blacks win, it won't be by enough points. When it is by a big margin, they won't have played in the right style. Only the perfect performance will appease - something that will most likely never be achieved.

* * *

Henry, now in his sixth season, feels he knows the reasons behind the ire. "People stay in the current," he says by way of trying to explain why it is that New Zealand's most successful coach of the professional era remains one of the most divisive figures. "We played poorly against Italy and you get judged by your last performance. I think one of the reasons why there is that [All Black] legacy is because the expectation of New Zealanders is huge and the All Blacks try to live up to that and that is one of the drivers. If you took that away you wouldn't have the same record.

"We are always trying to add to that legacy. We are always trying to win tournaments because it adds to that marvellous legacy. The brand is huge and it is huge because for 105 years the All Blacks have kept winning and producing performances they are proud of.

"This team has added to that and that is what makes me proud to be associated with them. Last year we won all the cups - achieved the third Grand Slam in history and had no tries scored against us. Those kinds of things are very important to me."

Still, however much he understands what determines the mood of the nation, there must be a part of him that craves more recognition. He must wonder how Clive Woodward could blow three Grand Slams in successive years, bomb out of the 1999 World Cup and end his tenure with England as Sir Clive. Bernard Laporte killed all that was good about French rugby and was rewarded with a high profile job in the French government.

Henry has won the respect of his employer - the New Zealand Rugby Union announcing last week that his contract has been extended to the 2011 World Cup.

He has the respect of the players. In the wake of the 2007 World Cup failure, it took a group of senior players to persuade Henry to re-apply for his job. But he just can't persuade the very people the All Blacks represent to take some time out from venting to realise that his tenure has in fact been a golden age for New Zealand rugby.

That might be better appreciated over the next 12 months as Henry makes the staggering admission: "We are likely to get beaten, which is a horrible thought but it is a greater possibility. I don't think that is going to be a bad thing.

"No one wants to lose test matches - that is not the intention but if it happens it will probably be good for us. It will make us even more determined to do the job to the maximum, to look at other ways of doing it and to look at other ways to bring the best out of people whether it be on the field or off.

"We are all in a stage where we are trying to improve our skills to do this job and to bring in different ideas to enhance the ability of the team. We are all into that - Richie [McCaw] is into that and the senior players are into that so is Steve [Hansen] and Smithy [Wayne Smith] and I am into that.

"And that makes it stimulating because if you are just regurgitating and keeping the thing on an even keel then you are going to be passed - beaten and passed - aren't you?"

* * *

It's the all bar one' that drives much of the venom towards Henry. The bar one being, of course, the failure to win the World Cup. Probably, had the All Blacks been caught out on the day; been beaten by a side that over-performed against the odds in a one-off knock-out match, Henry would have been forgiven by now.

But the All Blacks were tripped up by their own obsession with winning the World Cup. Having only lost two out of 25 tests in 2005 and 2006, they made the mistake of believing they couldn't maintain their momentum through to October, 2007. It was like a 1500-metre runner reaching the home straight well ahead of the field only to believe he should tackle the last 100m backwards.

Henry has to shoulder much of the blame. His reconditioning programme wasn't a bad idea as such, but the management of it, particularly the integration of the chosen players back into Super Rugby, was poor. The continued rotation of players in the pre-World Cup tests and at the tournament itself was hard to understand and the All Blacks, once again, reached the critical point in third gear having changed down from fifth.

The coach can't be the only one to stand in the dock. The NZRU specifically asked Henry to win them a World Cup. They said anything goes, sacrifice the present if you have to - just make sure the All Blacks return from France victorious.

Egg was splattered on the faces of everyone involved with the 2007 failure. What we will soon find out is whether anyone actually learned anything of value from the worst All Black World Cup campaign in history.

Henry will be in charge in 2011. It will be his chance for redemption. So how is he going to handle the next two years? Has he been briefed by his employer as he was in 2005?

"I think those meetings will occur after the Tri Nations," he says. "We will be getting together with a lot of people who will be important in the build-up to 2011. I think it's important the franchise coaches are involved in those sorts of meetings; the All Black coaches; some of the senior players, Steve Tew and Jock [Hobbs] and other members of the board.

"We need to sit down and work out a strategy. We can't go back to the future. We have to find other ways of ensuring guys are in the best condition they can be.

"We have got to select a group reasonably early - a wider training group that we have personal interest in. We want the players to drive their programmes but to make sure the All Black and franchise coaches are all on the same page.

"You have to say Player X is at this point and we need him to be at Point Y come the World Cup - how do we get him there? They do their normal thing - they play their franchise rugby; they play their test rugby; we concentrate on playing well and focus on each test we are playing, but we have individuals at whatever point they are at, trying to get to a point where we think they can get to."

* * *

If the All Blacks fail again in 2011, Henry's career will be indelibly stained. To lose one World Cup is unfortunate; to lose two is careless.

He's not worried about that right now. He's aware all that he has worked for could be ruined long before 2011.

"When we first got the job in 2004 we went through a learning curve in the first nine months getting to know the players, the environment, the job. We put our own stamp on what had been the norm in the past and it has been pretty successful really other than the disappointing hiccup that we all know about.

"Last year was about resurrecting after the hiccup. There was quite a bit of anti' out there about the All Blacks and the people who were responsible for them - me. Last year was about getting back on course and proving we can do this job.

"Now we are in a situation where a third of the group is in their first year of international rugby so we are having to build again. That's going to take some time. It is going to create some necessary challenges."

It's those challenges that have stoked the fires within Henry. This is what he lives for - being under pressure to deliver. There might even be some masochistic tendencies as the pleasure he derives from being the national coach usually flows freest after he's experienced the pain.

"I don't enjoy Saturday. I don't enjoy sitting around waiting for the game. I find Saturday's a very long day.

"I go to the gym. I go for a walk with my wife if she's around. But it's just a long day. I find the game pretty demanding now. Because you have created something you are very proud of, you don't want it to disintegrate.

"But I have felt the best I have felt all year this week," he says. "I think it is because I really enjoy the challenge."

By 2011 Henry will have coached the All Blacks for more than 100 tests - schedules depending. That longevity is unprecedented. No other test coach has lasted that long.

Test football is in his blood so can he imagine a life where he's not part of the All Blacks? Where he heads to Eden Park with the masses, rug on his knees and hot chocolate in his hands?

"Yes. It has to be a reality and there have to be other things that you are stimulated by. They won't have the same edge or the same stress.

"We have a two-year-old grand-daughter and her mother - my oldest son's wife - is pregnant and Raewyn was over in Sydney as my daughter is having a baby in two weeks. That's three grandkids, so life changes."

The new additions to the clan mean there will be at least two more people appreciative of Henry's achievements with the All Blacks.

It's maybe time the rest of the country made peace with Henry, accepted he's not the devil - just a hard-working Kiwi, doing what he can to enhance the reputation of a football team in which the nation should be proud.

- Herald on Sunday

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