ONE MOMENT IN TIME
NZ Rugby World|Issue 205, June - July 2020
ONE MOMENT IN TIME
IN 2007 NEW ZEALAND RUGBY MADE WHAT WAS A HUGELY UNPOPULAR DECISION TO RE-APPOINT GRAHAM HENRY AS ALL BLACKS COACH. MANY SAID IT WAS MAD, BUT HISTORY PROVED IT WAS A BOLD AND BRILLIANT CHOICE.
At the time, the decision was branded a disaster. A mad, bad idea. More than half the country wanted the incumbent All Blacks coaching panel of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen to be fired.

That trio had delivered the worst World Cup campaign in All Blacks history at the greatest expense.

So come December 2007 when New Zealand Rugby had to decide whether to reappoint Henry and his team or give the job to the high-flying Robbie Deans who had enjoyed incredible, sustained success at the Crusaders, the majority felt there was only one choice.

Most of the country wanted Henry and his team out because failure could not be rewarded with another term in office. The All Blacks had bombed out in the quarterfinal to France.

But worse than that, they were weak in all the areas they were supposedly going to be strong. They didn't have the mental resilience despite that being an area that had been relentlessly worked on since 2004 when Henry came into the job.

They didn't have a clear idea about their top team, again despite that being something that was identified as a failing of the previous regime and worst of all, having rotated the team selections for the last two years – much to the chagrin of the public – the All Blacks still ended up with a fullback playing centre in a knock-out game of a World Cup.

That was the kicker. At the 1999 World Cup the All Blacks had been criticised for using Christian Cullen, the world's best fullback, at centre. They did the same thing in 2003 when Leon MacDonald ended up swapping No 15 for No 13 and Henry promised the same mistake would not be made on his watch.

And yet, come the quarter-final against France in Cardiff, it was Mils Muliaina, the regular fullback since 2003, who was lining up in the midfield.

If all that hadn't been bad enough, Henry had also decided in 2006 to negotiate a deal with NZR where he would be allowed to remove 22 All Blacks from the first seven rounds of Super Rugby so they could have an extended pre-season.

It decimated Super Rugby – especially the Crusaders who had to play almost half the campaign without their best players.

And if all that wasn't enough to persuade NZR to make a coaching change, there was the weight of history, the sense of obligation almost to observe the longstanding rule that said no one was able to survive World Cup failure.

John Hart resigned in 1999 and John Mitchell was dumped after the failure in 2003. That was the way of things. The job was about delivering success and if it didn't happen, the axe would fall. That's how it was and in the wake of the news that Henry was back for two more years, the critics howled.

Former NZR chief executive David Moffett wrote in a column for The Press newspaper: “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be writing that the NZRU rewards failure.

“The union may be deluding itself with its attempt at rewriting history but the New Zealand rugby public is not so easily fooled.”

Even Henry's mea culpa where he admitted the day he was reappointed that the conditioning programme that took the players out of Super Rugby in 2007 had been a mistake, failed to cut any ice with his critics and for the next two years, the relationship between the coaching team and public was fractious and tense.

The All Blacks lost just two of 15 tests in 2008 and picked up a Grand Slam, but still there were those who said the reappointment was a mistake.

When the All Blacks won only four of their first eight tests in 2009, the clamouring for Henry's head returned, but again NZR made the decision to give him another extension through to the World Cup.

Patience had been stretched to breaking point, but by the end of 2009 the landscape started to change.

By the last few tests of 2009, the All Blacks had found the gameplan they were looking for and had injected the skill-sets which they needed.

It had been a long and difficult two years but the coaching team had worked through their selection and tactical mistakes and evolved the attacking patterns of the team.

They had lived through intense criticism, had heard every reason why it was a bad idea they were still at the helm and yet come the end of 2009, after an impressive last run of games where they beat the Wallabies twice, then England, Wales and Italy before finishing off with a masterful performance in Marseilles against France, the All Blacks were ranked number one team in the world.

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Issue 205, June - July 2020