Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Wayne Smith's smarts will be hard to replace

In what was already shaping as one of the most challenging rugby years in a decade, the All Blacks now have another hurdle to jump which will be trying to recruit a new defence coach to replace Wayne Smith.

The All Blacks haven't been taken by surprise by Smith's decision to retire in October, knowing as they have for some time that he was going to make this year his last. But that doesn't make the business of bringing in a replacement any easier.

Bottom line: the All Blacks, in the short term, are going to lose more than they gain.

That's because Smith is a coach with a depth of emotional intelligence and strategic insight that few can match. Tony Brown, John Plumtree, Aaron Mauger, Andrew Strawbridge will all be good candidates to replace him, but all four would readily admit they wouldn't be able to yet match Smith in terms of their game understanding, athlete management and general life experience.

Smith has not only an incredible capacity to analyse the game, but to also relate to the players what he's seeing and what he wants them to do.

Effective communication is everything and Smith has managed to tighten the All Blacks' defence since he returned to the coaching team in 2015 and give them the confidence to use it as an attacking weapon.

One of his other key attributes is his conviction that the All Blacks have to be relentlessly innovative and be prepared to embrace new ideas and his ability to think laterally or obliquely is legendary within the team and has played a significant role in keeping the All Blacks ahead of their opponents.

There's a major intangible element to Smith as well and it's as much that, if not more so, that the All Blacks will miss. Smith is the sort of bloke management and players seek out for advice. He's able to offer little nuggets of wisdom; solutions to problems that aren't necessarily big, but could be if they were left untended.

Head coach Steve Hansen has long known the true value of Smith in a high performance environment where helping players deal with the pressures they face is more of a battle than equipping them with technical and tactical knowledge.

"Today isn't a surprise," said Hansen of yesterday's announcement. "I have been twisting his arm for the last six years to stay and eventually I was going to lose that competition. When you know someone is thinking about leaving - and Wayne has been honest and upfront the whole time - you can start planning for it.

"The hole will be big because this is a guy who has made a massive contribution. But the systems he has put in place and the structures that go with it, I think will lessen the hole. The hole from the man will be massive but the hole from the rugby side won't be so big."

Still, Hansen knows Smith's package of practical knowledge and human insight won't be readily matched which is why the All Blacks aren't looking to make a like-for-like appointment. While Smith's title has been defence coach, he was responsible for a wider portfolio.

The new man won't. He will be appointed with a tighter brief to focus on just defence and will be brought into the role ahead of the Rugby Championship to work alongside Smith who won't stand down until the showpiece event finishes in October.

Hansen says no one has been shoulder tapped and that the door is open to overseas candidates. While a few overseas applicants will apply, the chance of one being appointed seems slim as the All Blacks don't have a track record of looking outside New Zealand for key staff. And, probably, they will feel they have no need as New Zealand is in a golden period which is being driven as much by the quality coaching as it is by the innate skills of the players.

Brown has played an instrumental role in transforming the Highlanders from the shambolic team they were in 2013, to champions in 2015.

Mauger has a similar depth of intelligence to Smith and as a former outstanding All Blacks second-five, he has tactical vision as well as empathy for the human aspect of his athletes.

Plumtree would arrive in the role with a wealth of knowledge, not just about New Zealand's players, but could provide an insight into rival teams having worked in South Africa, Ireland and Wales.

Strawbridge worked with Smith at the Chiefs and the two connected. Smith would inevitably be comfortable recommending his former colleague, who has a similar ability to think outside the square.

- NZ Herald

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