Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

New position dream come true for Henry

By WYNNE GRAY

Graham Henry had planned to be coaching the Barbarians against England at Twickenham this weekend.

Instead he addressed the New Zealand Rugby Union and attended several Christmas functions yesterday in his new capacity as All Black coach.

Henry's elevation to the top rugby job in the country meant a halt for John Mitchell, another slap to his progress after the despair of World Cup semifinal failure.

After coaching the All Blacks in 28 tests for a decent record of 23 victories, four defeats and a draw, Mitchell was shown the door and Henry guided into the inner sanctum.

Statistics suggest it was a harsh verdict but there were many other forces at work behind the decision of the NZRFU board.

No matter those issues, Henry had realised a dream that started when he began coaching rugby about 30 years ago.

"I should have been at Twickenham but I stayed hoping this would happen," he said.

His decision was vindicated soon after midday yesterday when NZRFU chairman Jock Hobbs declared the 58-year-old former headmaster All Black coach for the next two years.

It continues the pattern of the last four World Cups where the coach taking the All Blacks to that tournament does not continue his duties the following season.

On straight results, Mitchell had a case for retention. His side defended the Tri-Nations title and reclaimed the Bledisloe Cup.

But Mitchell and his assistant Robbie Deans needed, at best, to get to the Cup final to retain their jobs. Even then their bargaining position was under pressure.

For some time they had been unwilling, unable or uncertain about completing other duties around their core business of selecting and coaching the national side.

It was a naive, arrogant, dangerous game of brinkmanship where they gambled that Cup victory would ensure reappointment.

Whatever blame lay with the NZRFU for allowing the situation to fester - Mitchell had to report directly to chief executive Chris Moller - it was an unhealthy relationship.

And yesterday the NZRFU bit back.

Hobbs did his best to camouflage any difficulties with Mitchell's regime.

But when he said that Mitchell's success with the All Blacks had been "very good" and "something he should be proud of" then clearly there were other problems.

Last month at the end of the Cup, Moller hinted at those difficulties in a pointed public criticism of the All Blacks.

Henry's long record of success at provincial, Super 12 and international level stacked up against Mitchell's international marks.

But, Hobbs reiterated yesterday, there were huge demands in a number of areas for the All Black coach. Henry, he said, had a great deal of experience in dealing with all those activities associated with being an All Black coach.

It was left unsaid, but the inference was that Mitchell had not shown enough efficiency in dealing with a growing portfolio of responsibility.

Hobbs refused to answer questions about whether Mitchell had shut out or rebuffed the NZRFU this year.

Phoning Mitchell yesterday to tell him he had lost his job was not easy but Hobbs hoped the young coach could be persuaded to stay with New Zealand rugby.

But the man of the moment was Henry, the bloke who famously just five years ago said he was "off to coach Wales and was going tonight".

"I worried whether I burned my bridges back then," he said yesterday. "But I wanted to coach international rugby."

When Henry returned to Auckland last year after stints with Wales and the Lions, the NZRFU had repealed their spiteful rule about the eligibility of coaches.

"Then I owed a huge debt to Wayne Pivac and Grant Fox who gave me an opportunity to get back into the coaching scene here," he said.

Henry's final speech to the NZRFU board was about his undiminished passion for coaching after 30 years, his maturity, experience and desire to get even better at his profession and his vision for the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby players.

That involved creating the appropriate team management, embracing the entire rugby family of supporters, fans, businesses, media, broadcasters, developing players' skills and leadership while giving them the best tactical and team assistance. The All Blacks had played superbly away from home this season in the Tri-Nations "but we did not kick on at the World Cup with the same quality".

"We were flaky at set piece and especially the lineouts, our general kicking is not strong and defence as a unit needs to be addressed," Henry said.

He wanted a three-pronged All Black coaching staff to deal with set piece, attack and defence.

"This is a huge buzz, a great privilege and I am looking forward to it immensely."

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