26 Oct

Henry Should Go
by Tracey Nelson
26 Oct 2007

trench_warfareApparently it’s D-Day at rugby union headquarters in Wellington, where the All Blacks coaching trio of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith (along with selector Sir Brian Lochore and team manager Darren Shand) will be undergoing their RWC performance review.  I suggest that the D will not stand for Dis-establishment, Demotion or Dismissal, given that the committee reviewing their performance is made up of NZRU board members Mike Eagle, Ivan Haines, Jock Hobbs, Graham Mourie and Paul Quinn.  Members of a board that essentially gave Henry and his cohorts carte blanche to do whatever they felt was necessary to win the Webb Ellis Trophy, such as pulling the All Blacks out of the first half of this year’s Super 14 and letting them “recondition” over the summer, not playing any warm up games prior to the tournament, etc.  Any instant dismissal of the coaches would reflect on the board, and suggest that they themselves got it wrong too. Interestingly, Eagle and Hobbs were part of the three-man committee that was established in 2003 to oversee and manage the appointment process that engaged the current incumbents, so this process really is a double-edged sword for them.

The coaches, Sir Brian, Shand and some senior players (not that we are privy as to who they may or may not be) will be called upon to debrief the committee on what happened at RWC 2007.  The grapevine has it that the coaches will focus on the performance of referee Wayne Barnes in that quarter final loss to France, hardly surprising that tactic will be used given the level of sentiment spouted forth about said referee immediately after the game by one member of the review panel.  At least that part of the review game plan seems straight forward and logical.  There will no doubt be reference to the 85+% winning record of this coaching trio, certainly not something to be sniffed at and it must be remembered they won a Lions series (albeit against an awful outfit from the British Isles) and a Grand Slam tour.  Although we could compare that with John Mitchell, a coach who dipped out in a RWC *semi* final on the back of a very similar winning record and was packed off in disgrace.

Everything leading up to September 2007 was staked on winning the Rugby World Cup, not just in the minds of the public and the NZRU, but it came from Henry’s mouth too.  Words to the effect of “judge me on our RWC performance” when queried about the length of the reconditioning programme, and the effect the missing All Blacks were having on the Super 14 competition must surely come back to haunt him.  What was inherently obvious after the reconditioining programme was yes, the All Blacks were definitely faster runners and had some wonderful handling skills in open play, but they were lacking the physicality required to play the contact sport that is rugby.  We had lost our physical and (more importantly) mental brutality, at times we weren’t efficient and we were certainly missing the clinical element as was evident in the number of handling errors after each test match played in 2007.

That in itself could have been dealt with had everyone bought into the game “style”, the expansive, fast-paced, off-loading game that is so attractive to watch but requires players to be ultra confident in the game plan and the players around them.  This is where we fell over, because when the pressure came on we lost that confidence both on and off the field.  One senior All Black player has been purported as saying post tournament that at the eleventh hour the coaches changed the game plan against France and decided to go with a kicking game.  Evidence of this could be seen during the match; where previously the All Blacks had kept the ball in hand and minimised the number of rucks in order to keep the off-load game alive, in Cardiff we became seriously bogged down in a game full of rucks and kicking, more so than in all our pool games combined.  This was something the reconditioned players were neither used to nor conditioned for.  Add to that a re-gigged backline with players in unfamiliar roles and combinations, and an apparent disregard for the inclusion of the experienced Howlett and Mauger in the playing squad,  the outcome was written in stone before Wayne Barnes even got the pea in his whistle wet. The performance of a referee is something you cannot predict nor control, so therefore should not be factored into the way a team itself performs.

I could maybe forgive this coaching trio for the endless player rotation, the reconditioning programme, the sometimes cringe-inducing lineout antics of the past four years, the need for a senior management team within the players (sporting leaders are born, chaps, not made), the endless combinations in the midfield, the numerous “specialist” coaches and trainers that swelled the ranks of the management team to the point where not all of them could get passes to the RWC games… all of this I could have lived with if we had just stayed true to what we set out to do.  We didn’t.  We strayed from the plan. Whether it was by design or because of a small, underlying doubt is neither here nor there now.  If we had lost to France playing our brand of rugby then maybe it wouldn’t have felt so numbingly awful, although had we played that way I’m not sure we would have lost that game.   But to go into our shells and effectively back away from everything the last two years has been about was tantamount to treachery.

I have no idea what way the committee will go when they report back to the NZRU on Thursday, and it seems the rugby public are split when it comes to support for the incumbents keeping their jobs.  However, two things are crystal clear and at the end of the day should be the crux of the committee’s recommendation to the NZRU board.  Never in the history of New Zealand rugby has a coach had so much made available to him, both on and off the field.  And never in the history of New Zealand rugby have we bowed out so early in a Rugby World Cup tournament.


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