IN 2007 THE NEW ZEALAND RUGBY UNION MADE WHAT WAS A HUGELY UNPOPULAR DECISION TO REAPPOINT GRAHAM HENRY AS HEAD COACH OF THE ALL BLACKS. BUT IT PROVED TO BE AN INSPIRED AND ENLIGHTENED MOVE. SOON THEY MUST DECIDE AGAIN WHETHER CONTINUITY IS STILL THE RIGH
In the rush to establish the World Cup as an accepted and regular part of the rugby calendar, no one stopped to think of the potential negative consequences.
To be fair, why should they? And even if, back in 1987, anyone in an executive role had been cognisant of the possible downsides to having such a major landmark every four years, it wouldn’t have stopped them doing everything they could to put the stake in the ground.
Besides, the problem that resulted with the World Cup being established was arguably confined to New Zealand – or at least highly specific to it and not such an issue for other nations.
Inadvertently at first perhaps, New Zealand Rugby created a problem for itself when it aligned All Blacks’ coaching contracts with the World Cup cycle. What that meant was that in time an entire coaching tenure came to hinge on the results at the World Cup.
A coaching reign was set up with one goal in mind – to win the World Cup. Fail, and no matter how well the team had played in the previous three years, that was it, job over.
Alex Wyllie and John Hart saw the All Blacks lose in the 1991 World Cup semifinal and that was it, they were both out of a job. In came Laurie Mains in 1992 and out he went in 1995 when the All Blacks lost in the final to South Africa.
Hart came back to the role in 1996 and had a hugely successful first two years.
The All Blacks won a series in South Africa for the first time and just one test in 1996 and none in 1997.
But when they crashed out to France in the World Cup semifinal in 1999 he didn’t bother hanging around to hear his fate – he fell on his sword.
John Mitchell didn’t fall on his sword in 2003 after the All Blacks lost, again in the semifinal. He had a crack at staying in the job through the contestable process, but missed out to Graham Henry.
The funny thing is, even if any of those coaches had been successful at the World Cup with the All Blacks, they still would have had to reapply for their jobs after the tournament. While the appointment cycle may have organically fallen into a cyclical routine at first, by 1999 it was deliberate. New Zealand Rugby’s policy was to align coaching contracts with World Cups.
There were a number of problems with this pattern. The first is that it placed too much weight on the team’s performance at a World Cup. It felt like coaches were being judged almost exclusively on a six-week period within a four-year period.
That created specific decision-making cultures that were about building towards the World Cup rather than focusing on what was immediate. Examples of this would be Mitchell not taking 13 leading All Blacks to Europe in November 2002.
He left most of his top players at home to recover that year so they could reach the 2003 World Cup refreshed after a longer pre-season.
Henry extended that theory in 2007 – taking all his players to Europe in 2006, but then giving them the first seven weeks of Super Rugby off to prepare specifically for the World Cup. In truth, the rotation policy that was in use throughout 2005 and 2006 was also about the World Cup – building a wider squad of experienced players so there was depth come 2007.
The final problem was that it didn’t create any opportunity for coaches to learn and adapt from a failed World Cup campaign. The All Blacks fell into a cycle of one coach making mistakes at one tournament then the new man repeating them at the next. There was no transference of institutional knowledge – no chance for someone to use failure as their most powerful learning tool.
As current All Blacks defence coach Wayne Smith says: “In that period from 2004-2011 I think we won 89 games out of 103, but we were still rat-s*** until we won the World Cup.
“It always annoyed me because week after week after week you saw these guys put everything on the line, you’d win Grand Slams or Lions series or Tri Nations, but in a lot of people’s eyes we were still no good because we hadn’t won a World Cup.”
He was right, but the fact he, Henry and fellow assistant Steve Hansen were still being given the chance to win tests after 2007 was one of the most significant breakthroughs of the professional age.
After being appointed to the head coaching job in late 2003, Henry enjoyed three-and-a-half great years at the helm. The All Blacks only lost five times before the start of the 2007 World Cup. And then, against all predictions, they bombed out in the quarterfinal of the 2007 tournament. It was their worst campaign in history and, with all the surprise of a Russian election, New Zealanders called for heads to roll.
No matter how good they had been prior to the World Cup; no matter how much progress they had been made in transforming the All Blacks into a genuinely high performance team, the rules were the rules – stuff up the World Cup and face the axe.
The expectation was that Henry and his team would be fired, the head coaching job would be contestable and it would be all change.
That turned out to be only partly right. The job was made contestable but Henry was encouraged to re-apply. He went head to head with Robbie Deans and even Henry, after his interview, didn’t feel he was in the running. He rang Smith to tell him so and the trio waited to hear their fate the following morning. They were sure they would be out.
But only one of the eight votes went against them and they were reappointed. It was a genuine surprise to Henry and to the wider New Zealand rugby public.
The cycle had been broken. Failure at the World Cup had not resulted in coaching change. The board decided that Henry was still the best man to coach the All Blacks. The World Cup had been a disaster, but the view was taken that no longer would a six-week period define the success or otherwise of a four-year tenure.
There had to be greater balance when judging coaching merits and there also had to be acceptance that coaches learn from mistakes – it’s how they grow and become better.
“Graham’s record, both on and off the field, is among the best in All Blacks rugby history,” said NZRU acting chairman Mike Eagle
“He has set a very high standard in coaching, player management, and integration with the wider New Zealand rugby community. He has given a lot in a successful period for our game and the board is convinced he has more to give the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby. As a result, we believe that in the best interests of New Zealand rugby, Graham and his team were the right choice.”
Like all unprecedented moves, there were many opponents initially. The NZRU was breaking with convention and, of course, the very nature of being different is that it can be unsettling and antagonistic for some.
It’s never easy to gauge accurately the true sense of opposition to single decisions, but it did seem that the move to reappoint Henry was hugely unpopular in 2008.
Probably more than half the country didn’t support him being retained and the animosity flared midway through the Tri Nations when the All Blacks lost two tests in a row. This was how it was going to be – every defeat was going to spark a backlash – like a quarrelling couple coming
GRAHAM’S RECORD, BOTH ON AND OFF THE FIELD, IS AMONG THE BEST IN ALL BLACKS RUGBY HISTORY. HE HAS SET A VERY HIGH STANDARD IN COACHING, PLAYER MANAGEMENT, AND INTEGRATION WITH THE WIDER NEW ZEALAND RUGBY COMMUNITY... AS A RESULT, WE BELIEVE THAT IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF NEW ZEALAND RUGBY, GRAHAM AND HIS TEAM WERE THE RIGHT CHOICE.’ MIKE EAGLE
Throughout the professional age, it didn’t matter how many tests a coach won, it all came down to performance at the World Cup. JUDGEMENT DAY
LONG HAUL Graham Henry had to fight to win back the New Zealand rugby public. [RIGHT] WINNERS BUT LOSERS The All Blacks enjoyed a great period between 2004 and early 2007, but it counted for nothing when they failed at the World Cup.