IN­SIDE JOB

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

NZ Rugby World - - Inside Job - Gre­gor Paul with the story.

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.

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