All Blacks: Shuffle proves right move

By Gregor Paul

Steve Hansen has been successful coaching the backs but wants to return to the forwards. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen has been successful coaching the backs but wants to return to the forwards. Photo / Getty Images

Even the fiercest sceptics will agree that the All Black coaching shuffle is a case of the end justifying the means.

The final test of the year produced the best performance for 18 months and the fears the All Blacks were on the cusp of something dreadful have all but vanished.

The future is promising; the All Blacks are emerging out of the dark patch they hit earlier in the year.

They have their senior crew restored to full health and top form; a number of young bucks such as Kieran Read and Cory Jane pushing through and a game plan that works.

That's the key - the game plan was most certainly not right early in the season.

When the coaches did modify it, the players couldn't be relied on to deliver. The forwards fronted only sporadically; the lineout was a shambles and the backs couldn't find any rhythm or cohesion.

The end of year tour was a very different story. There was structure every time they played.

The forwards dominated, eventually, every side they played. Their work at the collision was immense. The lineout was almost flawless and there was some neat pick and drive and clever offloading.

It was entirely different to the Tri Nations. The consistency was compelling. The mindset was right and didn't waiver. The forwards came to Europe expecting trouble and they were ready to deal with it.

The backs managed to cut loose only once, in Marseille, but had been threatening it all tour. They were assured under the high ball and ready to counter-attack.

The midfield had more punch and better timing and there were four perfect defensive efforts ...

So much about how the All Blacks operated felt right. South Africa struggled to just one win, while Australia suffered a defeat and a draw, illustrating just how hard it is to win in the Northern Hemisphere.

There was more to the feel-good factor than the results, however. There was an energy and snap to the All Blacks that had not been present earlier. The confidence was obvious and the reshuffle did more than invigorate the three coaches - it lifted the whole squad.

There were some rightful concerns at how the move was announced - in a 'by-the-way' sort of moment where it was played down as no big deal.

At the time, it felt as if it was a way for Graham Henry to preserve the career of Steve Hansen, pushing him into a dead zone rather than out the door.

It was all a little comfortable maybe - much as British Prime Minister Tony Blair made way for his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

The scepticism was valid but can now be shelved. Conrad Smith spoke in Tokyo of the way Hansen had challenged the backline in his new post: "He has a way of making you think," said Smith.

"Sometimes I don't agree with him but he explains his point and that forces you to think about your view and it's a good way to be."

Hansen has made a difference in his new role and was a key influence in producing what Henry described as "one of the best attacking performances produced in a long time".

Yet, despite the plaudits and clearly being suited to his new role, Hansen is hankering to return to his original post.

"It's been interesting. I've enjoyed it [attack] but I don't see myself doing it long term because, to me, the game is up front. That's where it's played and won and the guys out the back just do all the other stuff.

"It has been really good for the three coaches to get an appreciation of what the others go through ... We've had to help coach each other, which has been great.

"The big bonus has been that it's really allowed the players to step up and take some ownership of each of the areas.

"They've got a coach coming into an area where it's not their main strength, apart from Smithy, who's a great defence coach. The players have grown an extra leg and an arm out of it."

Returning to the pre-tour situation must be resisted. It sounded iffy but the reshuffle has added an edge and brought the benefits Henry floated.

There is one other significant reason the new portfolios should be kept for a while at least. Henry himself has been reborn.

He's found his coaching edge again and his greater involvement on the tour at training shouldn't be underestimated as a factor in rejuvenating the All Blacks.

Henry remains a man happiest in a track suit - hands on, whistle in mouth and training drills stuck to his clipboard. He is technically and tactically astute and the players both fear and respect him.

The All Blacks began building something in Europe in 2004 that they continued into 2005 and 2006.

The current All Blacks may be about to do something similar and need to know what the coaches are going to be doing from campaign to campaign.

Enough progress was made in November 2005 to believe the current set-up should be given at least another year.

- Herald on Sunday

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