Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Smith rejoins All Blacks fold

Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The All Blacks have the last piece of their coaching puzzle in place for 2016 as Wayne Smith has agreed to take on an expanded role.

The 58-year-old, who has been head and assistant coach of the national team, is believed to have agreed to a two-year contract that will bring him in line with the rest of the coaching team who are also committed through to 2017.

What role Smith will play is not known yet but, with long-serving skills coach Mick Byrne having returned to Australia, it is possible Smith will assume that portfolio and combine it with his defensive duties.

That would be the logical assumption given that, other than Byrne and analyst Al Rogers, who is now assistant coach at the Blues, the rest of last year's coaching group have been retained.

Head coach Steve Hansen was re-signed in December 2014; assistant coaches Ian Foster and Mike Cron committed for another two years shortly after last year's World Cup, joining managers Darren Shand and Gilbert Enoka and selector Grant Fox.

The British and Irish Lions tour New Zealand in 2017.

"I know our guys are working really hard to draw a line underneath 2015 and set this year up as a completely new set of challenges for the group," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew told Newstalk ZB. "The key thing now is to lock up the full group [of coaches] for this year, which we are very close to doing, and then we will move on to a longer-term view just as we have done with the players. We are not far away from making an announcement."

The battle to persuade Smith to stay was prolonged largely because he wanted to be certain he had the appetite for what will be a time-consuming and emotionally-demanding job.

It's the hallmark of Smith that he never rushes into accepting a post - he has to be sure he's going to add value. The All Blacks didn't want to rush a decision because they see him as one of the most important pieces of their coaching team.

Smith's experience, knowledge and ability to relate to the players is recognised as about the best there is in the global game and he's been in huge demand elsewhere.

Hansen also knew the value of patience, as he had to show it in 2014 when Smith, who was technical director with the Chiefs at the time, thought long and hard about signing a one-year contract with the All Blacks in World Cup year.

He eventually felt confident he could do justice to the role of defence coach with the national team and made a significant impact. The All Blacks, having been defensively average by their own admission in 2014, built their successful World Cup campaign on the back of their relentless defence.

They made the decision to compete less at the tackled ball - for fear of being penalised by officials who were perhaps over-vigilant in that area - and instead put pressure on opponents through the speed and accuracy of their defensive line.

It was a smart strategy made better by the quality of the execution and, although Hansen was eager for Smith to extend his stay, the veteran coach was adamant he wanted to take a sabbatical from the game to have some space to travel and be with his family.

Despite Smith making his intentions clear, his name continued to be linked to various jobs around the world. There were reports he was wanted by Harlequins in London and Smith himself confirmed in February that he had a number of offers to mull.

He's done that, and an announcement about his new role with the All Blacks is expected shortly. Hansen has previously said he was "50-50" about continuing on until the 2019 World Cup in Japan and Tew said they would take their time in talking to Hansen. "My experience with him, which is now 15 years old, is we'll drive a timetable that is best determined by being patient."

Tew also said there was a feeling many players were keen on going through to 2019 to try to win a third successive World Cup.

- Herald on Sunday

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