Chris Rattue: Pull the trigger and let's get shot of Henry

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Graham Henry's coaching magic is fading fast. Photo / Getty Images
Graham Henry's coaching magic is fading fast. Photo / Getty Images

All Black coach Graham Henry and his cohorts should be sacked. Enough is enough.

It's time for the clean out, the night of the long knives, the great purge. You would have to ask serious questions over the quality of the NZRU executive and board as well, given their dalliances with the national provincial competition and staggering decision to reappoint Henry after the last World Cup.

The Kremlin is full of arrogance and rot, and it's well past the time when this decaying monolith is forced to start all over again. The national game needs leaders with clear thought, charisma and a positive outlook not based on excuse-making for their failures.

The All Black coaching and selection panel is the immediate problem to sort out.

What we are now seeing is typical of Henry's international coaching history. He starts with a roar but fails to land the big prizes and fades fast.

It happened with Wales, the Lions and his first four years of his All Black reign.

His career has included major achievements, for sure, but also clear failures and he is on the slide now.

Surely even Henry's staunch supporters, and he's got plenty of them in influential places, can see that whatever coaching magic he once possessed is fading fast.

The blood that should have been spilled after the appalling World Cup campaign of 2007 needs to flow right now.

The truth will always out, and it has flooded all over our television screens during the past fortnight. The All Blacks have sunk to depths never thought imaginable, to the point that they can't even use a horrible loss to stir themselves towards redemption.

You can only cringe as these rugby warriors lurch into the pre-match haka. Oooh, we're all so scared. Actually, we're all trying to work out who is in the team this week.

Bloemfontein was the portent, Durban the nadir. The memories from South Africa will centre on Neemia Tialata's lumbering 20m drop out and Piri Weepu hurling the ball back to no one near his goal line. That's if you can get past the image of Joe Rokocoko trying to run the ball into the field of play, as if he'd woken up and found himself in an NRL game.

More saddening still was the sight of the stupendous All Black warhorse Richie McCaw battling to find form. McCaw has had to prop up this team for too long. It's all got too much, even for him. At this rate, with McCaw scurrying all over the park trying to find the All Blacks' game, he'll be a wreck by the World Cup.

South Africa have a very good side now, of tremendous players, and maybe clever assistants, and a strangely excitable head coach. The frightening thing is that the Springboks are capable of far more than they have shown, especially if their lineout kings stay fit and healthy.

It was the manner of the All Blacks' defeat that should send Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith through the exit door.

Having been reappointed after abject World Cup failure, they had to come up with something better than this to retain their positions. The displays against average French and Italian teams were dreadful, the win over Australia reasonable but also very fortunate.

They have performed even worse than their ardent critics could have imagined.

There is no rhythm to the All Blacks' game, no discernible tactic that is truly working. About all you could say is that they have uncovered a potentially fine test prop in Owen Franks, but given that they've been though 14 props in just over five years, the three amigos were bound to come up with something good in the long run.

Let's go back to 2007 and rummage around for the rationale by which the Henry supporters found a way to keep him in the job.

There was one excuse put forward above all others, that the 2007 season - a World Cup year no less - could be regarded as a learning experience, that a man of vast international coaching experience should be allowed a golfing Mulligan, a giant air shot that didn't need to be counted because he would be better for the awful swing.

In his NZRU interview, Henry turned on a referee to retain his job.

But forget the quarter-final referee in Cardiff, because the All Blacks failed to make the 2007 World Cup final because of poor selection, coaching and preparation. They are failing to this day for the very same reasons under the very same men. How long will it take for this penny to drop?

The "he'll be better for the experience" line was a ridiculous argument for one prime reason. The NZRU had at its disposal a master coach in Robbie Deans, a man who had earned the right - and then some - to take up the role he treasured as head of the national team.

Yet this administration gifted Deans to the enemy, and retained their precious "group" without even introducing a new voice by altering the lineup. Now, as an excuse for keeping their boys in their jobs, the NZRU claimed they re-signed the group this year to keep them away from alleged overseas interest.

Now the air is thick with excuses that rank in credibility alongside the devious and heartbreaking business that led to Henry climbing back into the All Black job on steps that included a giant NZRU knife in the back of Deans, the prized Super 14 coach who had kept the Kiwi rugby flag flying high through all weathers.

With the best will in the world, you can only cry foul at a lopsided NZRU vote that forced the brilliant coach across the Tasman and kept Henry in power.

Yes, Henry's All Blacks won the Tri-Nations last year, but there were hiccups involved. The jury remained out. But after mainly abysmal efforts in the four lead-up tests this year, it was no surprise at all to see the All Blacks collapse in South Africa.

In part, this is due to the quality of the Springbok players.

They have pace and power to burn and perhaps the finest lineout in rugby history.

But these All Black selectors have schemed themselves into a hole.

Henry, Hansen and Smith are so engrossed with their own alleged intellect, that they have forgotten that the great rugby teams are forged on the field. Combination and confidence is essential, something that is impossible to achieve through random selection techniques and tactics.

You could argue all day about the current selections. Ultimately, it is for the selectors to make whatever combination they pick work. And it hasn't. Not even close.

The yardstick I'll use here is the Lions, who played some wonderful rugby in an excellent and close test series against South Africa this year.

Man for man, the Lions and All Blacks would be a rough match. Yet it was the Lions who had rhythm and combination while Henry's manicured mob were a rabble.

Replacement All Black coaches? All Waikato men, by coincidence.

Chasing the loyal and uncomplaining Deans is out of the question - he would never turn his back on Australia now.

I shudder at the thought of All Blacks' forward coach Steve Hansen taking charge, but such is the state of the All Blacks that even that might be a better option than sticking with Henry. At least elevating Hansen would be a way of introducing a new voice at the top, and also a new face on to the panel. It might just work long enough to sustain a decent World Cup challenge.

It should be a last resort though.

Warren Gatland should be the number one target. The Welsh coach may be tied to his current job, but you don't know until you ask. He would love to take charge of the All Blacks, and the Welsh - rugby romantics to a fault - would be more amenable than most rugby employers.

John Mitchell might also be considered. Mitchell - with Deans alongside - did a fine job with the All Blacks in a short space of time when asked to perform a rescue act after Wayne Smith bailed out.

On the same line of favouritism should be Ian Foster.

Foster is a good man with a good handle on life. He has edged well ahead of Colin Cooper in the All Black stakes after the latest Super 14. This column has been critical of Foster's success rate at the Chiefs, and the haste at which he has been reappointed twice by the NZRU.

But he came up with reasonable goods in this year's Super 14. Who knows - Foster may work a treat.

At least he would represent an honourable restart, a chance for those of us appalled by the treatment of Deans to fall in love with the All Blacks again. (My own contempt for the NZRU grows with every test match that Henry remains in charge).

It would be a major leap for the Chiefs' coach, but it is for every new test coach.

Yes, the NZRU chased away the major challengers to their golden boys, but that shouldn't close the book.

More than anything, New Zealand rugby needs to rid itself of the ridiculous notion that Henry and his mates are the only keepers of true rugby knowledge, that they are above the rest, that for some unknown reason they have a handle on this game that others find impossible to grasp. The contrary evidence is that not only is their wizardry a myth, but in fact they have lost the plot completely.

In all honesty, I'd back the likes of Todd Blackadder to do a better job than Henry. Rugby has its complexities, but it's not nuclear physics.

As to the the chances of the NZRU cutting their men adrift - they wouldn't be much better than nil. The administration and their favoured few are locked in a tragic embrace, like limpet mines to a sinking ship.

* A word on the Air New Zealand Cup. You sense a mood of healthy and growing interest in the provincial competition. The old rugby tribalism might be on the rise again. It had a fabulous start to the 2009 season.

- NZ Herald

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