x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Henry eyes the big prize

The All Blacks coach is 'working back from 2011' when he hopes his team will at last come good.

Graham Henry stirs the sugar into his coffee intently. He has made time for a chat, he is not at total ease on the threshold of another Tri Nations series, but he is more relaxed than he has been in his All Black career. Henry is in the zone, but does not have the vocal paint stripper going or the fidgety mannerisms which have been previous pointers to the pressure which has accompanied all those in New Zealand's rugby history who have been anointed to lead the world's most famous rugby side.

The frown lines are absent and Henry is happy to dole out autographs and engage in small talk with the little people whose lives have intersected with the All Blacks in the hotel dining room. They are memories those children will hold forever just as Henry and Co are working towards what they hope will be a golden outcome at the 2011 World Cup. Henry's demeanour has something to do with his age. He is 63, and apart from a stint in Wales, seems to have been coaching in New Zealand since Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it.

His sangfroid has something to do with all that experience, with the balance he is getting in his life as a grandparent, with the self- assurance he has been given with his All Black coaching contract rolled over past the next World Cup. Not that it was ever in doubt, but Henry was reassured to see it officially inked and publicly underlined. Unless there is some calamity, Graham "Ted" Henry, his coaching cronies Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen and the All Blacks will get their chance of World Cup redemption when the tournament rolls round again in New Zealand in two years.

While the All Blacks have just resumed their Tri Nations conflict with the Wallabies and Springboks, Henry's thoughts are already tuned into the demands and needs of the seventh global tournament. "It's not that far away really and we need to be working on our plans and strategies," Henry said. "We are already working back from 2011, planning what we should be doing with players and tours and all those sorts of things."

Henry wants his squad to be in peak condition when the next tournament rolls round, but he is not going to repeat the extended reconditioning programme he introduced in 2003 which interrupted and ruined the Super rugby series that year. "We will be taking stock of all our players, making sure they have enough rest, so their minds and bodies are right, and make sure we get them sorted at various stages so they are in peak condition when the next tournament rolls round. So while we won't be withdrawing a whole of lot of players at once from competitions, they will all be monitored closely and rested when necessary."

Henry's attention to this sort of detail is legendary. He is a meticulous planner and someone who has regularly worked long into the night or in the early hours of the morning and demanded similar sacrifices of his coaching and management teams. While his mind is already thinking 2011, his immediate attention is the All Blacks' defence of their Tri Nations title. Move on a fortnight from those discussions and the All Blacks are one up and one down in that Tri Nations quest.

They started with a 22-16 victory against the Wallabies to continue an Eden Park hex they have held against their Transtasman neighbours since 1986. It was a workmanlike performance, nothing more. The All Blacks overcame an erratic start and the lack of Wallaby killer blows to ease out to the victory to open their latest tournament title quest. That encouraging start was balanced by an error-strewn 28-19 defeat against the Springboks at altitude in Bloemfontein last Saturday. It was the end of a torrid week where the squad managed a few hours sleep before they were on their way to South Africa and precious little training as they tried to get limbs and body clocks in order to meet the World Cup champions.

The Springboks victory gave them a strong beginning to the series and allowed them to snatch the world No 1 ranking from the All Blacks. "It's probably the best South African side we've played against and we've been around a wee while ... they've developed a very fine side," Henry said. He was probably overstating his rivals' portfolio, but Henry will have to use every amount of his coaching acumen to get his side up for this today's rematch in Durban.

"We've lost the battle, but maybe we haven't lost the war," Henry added. They haven't, but the All Blacks have already lost two Tests out of the five they have played this season with nine left on their schedule which finishes in late November. In Henry's previous five years in charge, the All Blacks have never lost more than two Tests in any season. They face a serious scrap if they are to preserve that record.

Henry and his crew are sitting on an 86 per cent winning record with the All Blacks in the 68 Tests they have been in charge. It is a remarkable record, but the grizzles have not abated. Much of the angst is the inability of some to forget the last World Cup and Henry's comments that he wanted to be judged on that tournament. Having been judged and reappointed as coach, at the expense of new Wallaby supremo Robbie Deans, some cannot forgive.

It used to grate with Henry and, if the truth be known it still irritates him. But he can't let it bother him or he will be diverted from his targets. "New Zealanders have huge expectations of this rugby team, that is one of the drivers for the All Blacks," he said. "If we did not have that public scrutiny, desire, support and all those others things, we would not have that record. The legacy is fantastic and we want to maintain it. This squad have added to that and it makes me extremely proud to be associated with them.

"When I look at things like our results last year when we won all the silverware and notched up the third Grand Slam in history without having any tries scored against us, it makes me very proud." But Henry knows there are tough times ahead. He has lost a core of senior players, men like Leon MacDonald, Doug Howlett, Aaron Mauger, Nick Evans, Byron Kelleher, Jerry Collins, Reuben Thorne, Chris Jack, Keith Robinson, Greg Somerville, Carl Hayman and Anton Oliver, since the last World Cup.

Talisman fly-half Daniel Carter and lock Ali Williams are injured and the All Blacks are having to be rebuilt for the next World Cup. It is not such a bad thing. Two years out from that tournament fresh names like Cory Jane, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross and Owen Franks are being brought into the mix, they are being grafted on to the side. Key men like captain Richie McCaw, Mils Muliaina, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn and Rodney So'oialo are still there, but may not be by 2011.

Henry and his coaching crew are still adding to their skills. Were they not, said Henry, it would be time to give it away. They have been through the 2007 experience and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), like England and Clive Woodward in 1999 then 2003, is banking on their coaching triumvirate making good on their last failure. "We are already thinking about how we should tackle that programme," Henry said. "Once the Tri Nations is over we want to sit down with senior players, the Super 14 coaches and others from the NZRU and just work out a framework for what we are going to do. We have to sort out the best strategy for us to tackle our path to 2011, we have to make sure we know what is the best plan to have our top guys in the best shape they can be for that World Cup.

"We want everyone to be on the same page so we all have to buy into the ideas. We all have to know where we are going and how, we have to identify a large group of players, make sure they are monitored, sort out their programmes and all of that business." For now though, Henry is concentrating on getting his squad through the Tri Nations. A third of the group are in their first year of Test rugby so Henry and his team are concentrating on building those players' knowledge, experience and understanding of Test rugby.

"It's exciting. We have these new guys who are very talented, but raw at this level, who need to be helped along the way. That places some more pressure on us but that is what we do, that is what we have been asked to deliver." Henry admits he can be tough to be around on game day and his squad will see those flashpoints as they narrow their focus on trying to beat South Africa today. The challenge has excited Henry as much as any in his lengthy career.

Taking on the Boks who have just beaten the Lions 2-1 in that series and are the reigning World Cup champions, at altitude in Bloemfontein just six days after making the long haul trip from New Zealand, was a massive assignment. The Boks had been resting and, apart from the banned flanker Schalk Burger, restored their strongest players. "This will be huge. We have got to play and do all the travelling while South Africa have been resting and waiting for us at home," Henry said.

"But that is the challenge, that is the task and we have to get on with it. It is as stimulating as the task ahead of us to the World Cup. "We are continually trying to improve our skills and improve ourselves. "We are always on the lookout for different ideas, different methods which will benefit us all, and that is stimulating. If you kept on with the same old things and didn't change and build, then you will be overtaken - nothing is surer than that."

Henry's schoolteacher training, unwavering passion for rugby and dedication to his work, offers a formidable coaching package. He will be able to draw the New Zealand pension by the time of the next World Cup, but does not see age as any barrier to his job. "I feel the best I have for some time," he says, "the juices are flowing again, it can be tough at times when things don't go your way but this is what I love doing.

"It's been that way too for the All Blacks for 105 years. We're all trying to keep our record going and to make New Zealand proud and at the same time we can't let that be a burden. We will acknowledge the criticism and the pressure but we can't let that get to us. We have our own expectations as does the team." wgray@thenational.ae