Graham Henry retires from the All Blacks as their greatest coach

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Graham Henry may be gone, but the All Blacks look as likely as ever to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

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They say about coaches in any sport that they come in two categories: those about to be sacked and those who will be sacked later on. Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach who broke the ‘choking barrier’ with his side in RWC 2011, has defied the odds.

He has effectively retired from coaching at the international level on his own terms and at his own time.

Nine days after winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup and after a world record 103 Test (for 88 wins and 15 losses) Henry today told the New Zealand rugby media he’d ‘had enough.’

He will probably take up a mentoring role with provincial and school boy coaches. But his days as a hands-on coach at the highest level are over.

Right after the World Cup victory, Henry said he could ‘rest in peace.’ And, at the age of 65, and three decades of front line coaching, this is what he is apparently going to do.

There is no doubt that if Henry had wanted to continue with the All Blacks the NZRU would have found a way to do it.

As it is, his successor will probably be Steve Hansen with Ian Foster, the unimpressive Chiefs coach, as his back-up.

There is talk in New Zealand, too, that the former AFL coach Mick Byrne will be part of the new All Blacks coaching staff.

In his farewell conference as the All Blacks coach Henry went out of his to praise Hansen and Byrne, thereby designating them as his successors.

At the end of the failed RWC 2007 campaign, Henry was shattered. He decided not to apply for another stint with the All Blacks.

But he was talked out of this by the CEO of the NZRU, Steve Tew. Tew did not get on with the logical candidate Robbie Deans. So he virtually organised the way for Deans to be passed over and for Henry to be given his chance of redemption.

The logic behind this decision was that Henry was a great coach (true enough) who would learn from the mistakes of the failed RWC 2007 campaign, rather like Sir Clive Woodward in RWC 2003 after his initial failed campaign of RWC 1999.

The decision to stay with Henry meant that Deans was available for the Wallabies.

Deans brought with him to Australia a huge amount of intellectual property on rugby coaching which has seen the Wallabies rise from fifth place in the world rankings when he took over to the current position of number 2.

Also, it was Deans coached players like Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane who provided the Reds with the flair to win their first Super Rugby title this season.

Interestingly, Tew talked about not wanting to lose the ‘intellectual property’ that Henry possesses that made him grateful that he did not take up the offers to coach overseas that have flooded in after the World Cup victory.

The great Fred Allen coached the All Blacks in an unbeaten run in the late 1960s. But he had the team for only 14 or so Tests. And he did not take it to South Africa. Power politics within the NZRU prevented this from happening.

But in terms of the length of his career with the All Blacks, the trophies they won under his guidance and the remarkable win/loss ration, Henry has claims right now to be regarded as the greatest coach the iconic side has had.

Aside from his record, Henry had a special gift of being able to inspire the best play from those players with an Pacific Island background.

Someone like Ma’a Nonu, for instance, could be lacklustre for the Hurricanes and then outstanding for the All Blacks, all within a matter of weeks.

The old school teacher and headmaster in Henry seemed to give him a special rapport with his players. Even when the All Blacks performed poorly under him, as they did in 2008 and 2009, there was never talk of players being discontented or rebellious.

Henry was helped (and helped himself in fact) with his shrewd selection of captains. He appointed Tana Umaga as his first captain of the All Blacks. Umaga was the first long-term captain of the All Blacks with a Pacific Islander background. And then his successor, Richie McCaw.

It was Umaga’s personality and play that won-over many people in New Zealand who disliked the rugby culture to embrace the All Blacks. Umaga also made an impassioned speech at the IRB which played its part in New Zealand winning the hosting rights to RWC 2011.

McCaw, of course, was the heart and soul of the All Blacks in the RWC 2011 final.

He played on one leg but was simply inspirational as he willed his team to victory.

The All Blacks had done courses into how to control their feelings in a final when the game looked to be slipping from them. The final was that game. And McCaw’s fiery optimism and courage in that last half hour of play was the difference between the two sides.

Aside from the impact of his selection of captains and his winning record, Henry deserves another accolade for keeping the faith in attacking rugby.

Indeed, even after the failure of the RWC 2007 when the All Blacks tried to score tries rather than kicking drop goals, Henry insisted that a World Cup was not worth winning if it could only be achieved by a negative, kicking tactics.

Even if they did not always achieve the ensemble running game all the time (and the RWC 2011 final is one such occasion), the All Blacks under Henry were always an attack-minded side. They ran the ball when they could and tried to score tries when they could.

The effect of this commitment to the attacking game should not be under-estimated.

During the World Cup tournament virtually all the British journalists made the point that the England game of smash and grab the points was too boring a spectacle in an era when rugby is claiming a place in the world of entertainment-sport.

Even the old curmudgeon himself, Stephen Jones, declared before the final that it would be a tragedy for rugby if the All Blacks did not win the tournament.

As it happened, the All Blacks played their worst match in the tournament in the final. But they had the courage to hang on and break the hoodoo that was blighting the soul of New Zealand rugby.

Only four of the All Blacks RWC 2011 squad are leaving New Zealand.

It will be interesting to see what the new coaching staff will do with the team that Henry built.

Can it get better and achieve back-to-back World Cup wins or will it collapse the way other World Cup winning sides have done?

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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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