Magnificent obsession, Spiro Zavos

Graham Henry: Final Word
Bob Howitt
HarperCollins, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869509736

Here is an heroic assertion. Graham Henry is the greatest coach in the history of rugby. His rivals for this title include Danie Craven, Carwyn James, Fred Allen and, possibly, Rod Macqueen. You could make a strong case for Craven and Allen, in particular, over Henry. But they did their coaching in an amateur era. So I give the honours as the greatest coach in the history of rugby (so far!) to Henry. Winning in the professional era, which has enabled teams like Tonga to defeat France at the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament, is a much harder task, for coaches of strong teams even, than it was in the amateur era. The extent of Henry’s success, at all levels of rugby, over many decades, and especially in a professional era when teams played more tests against tier one rugby nations, I would argue is unlikely to be duplicated or bettered.

A table at the end of Graham Henry: Final Word, a rugbiography written by the veteran Bob Howitt, lays out Henry’s coaching record. From Auckland Grammar School to the All Blacks, Henry coached 562 matches for 468 wins, 89 losses, five draws for a winning rate of 83 per cent. This is Bradmanesque. For the All Blacks, and the vast majority of these matches were tests, the Henry winning rate was 85 per cent, from a total of 106 matches.

The argument can be made that the All Blacks historically have won 75 per cent of their matches. And there is something in this. The clincher for Henry as a great coach, in my opinion, comes with his statistics with Wales. In the professional era Wales has won only 42 per cent of its tests. But during Henry’s coaching stint with the team, which ended with a series of losses, his winning rate was 59 per cent. This is a better record than, say, Robbie Deans with the Wallabies. Henry also coached Wales to their first test win against the Springboks, a victory that won him acclaim in the valleys (until it all went sour) as The Great Redeemer.

The obvious stain on Henry’s coaching record is the All Blacks’ loss to France in the quarter-final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Henry is more explicit in the book about his reactions to the stupendous loss than to the coaching mistakes he made during the campaign. He does not really discuss the special training programme the bulk of the All Blacks squad had to endure before and during the 2007 Super Rugby season. One of the Super Rugby coaches told me at the time that when his All Blacks finally came back to him in the seventh week of the Super Rugby tournament, the players were exhausted and muscle-bound. Henry has a diploma in physical education. But he and the experts he engaged to produce super athletes of the All Blacks got it entirely wrong. Many of them, including Jerry Collins and Daniel Carter, two of the more crucial players in the side, were injured in the quarter-final.

The injury to Carter was especially significant. He was the only back in the team who was an expert at drop goals. Henry left Aaron Mauger, the other drop goal specialist, out of the starting 22 for the game. Compounding this selection mistake was the fact that the game plan of the All Blacks did not include a dropped goal option. It is a mark of the lacklustre nature of this book that this revelation is made in Richie McCaw’s excellent The Open Side (written with Greg McGee). McCaw’s book on the 2007 Rugby World Cup debacle and how the All Blacks won the 2011 tournament is actually far more interesting and detailed and passionate than the Henry/Howitt account of the same “journey”. Henry comes across as a brooding introvert, who clearly did not open up to Howitt the way McCaw did to McGee. And to be fair to Henry, McGee is a far better writer with a finer understanding of psychology and the games within the game (which is at the heart of modern sport) than the journeyman Howitt.

Henry’s determination that the All Blacks had to win a Rugby World Cup tournament playing expansive and winning rugby was a magnificent obsession. It was magnificent but it was not war. The International Rugby Board (IRB) had ordained, with the approval of former New Zealand referee Paddy O’Brien (shame! shame!) who was the IRB’s director of refereeing, that tacklers had all the rights in the ruck situation over the runners. I remember suggesting to a leading New Zealand coach before the tournament that with O’Brien in charge of the referees the All Blacks would get a fair go at the tournament. The coach looked at me quizzically and replied: “What makes you think that?” And, as it happened, an ordinary Springboks side, kicking virtually every ball they got in general play, and with a sharp-shooter goal-kicker in Percy Montgomery, easily won the tournament.

In the Rugby World Cup 2011, however, after the boring play in the previous tournament, even the most trenchant All Black-haters among the British media were calling for an All Blacks’ victory “to save the running game”. This was Henry’s revenge for the wrongs inflicted on the All Blacks in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

But 2007 remains a searing experience for Henry and for most New Zealanders. There is a scene in Roger Hall’s play Four Flat Whites where an older New Zealand character watching the match cries out when the final whistle blows, somewhat like King Lear mourning the loss of his daughters: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!”

Henry’s big story in his rugbiography is his list of errors in the France-New Zealand 2007 world cup quarter-final made by the callow English referee Wayne Barnes and the veteran South African assistant referee Jonathan Kaplan. He has been criticised for listing all the errors made by Barnes and Kaplan. But he was correct to compile the list. New Zealand rugby officials are too reluctant to use their authority to push the interests of the All Blacks. As Henry points out, France was the most penalised side in 2007 yet they managed to play the last 60 minutes under intense pressure from the All Blacks and did not concede a penalty. Penalty-prone France received 85 per cent of the penalties (an 11-2 count) against a disciplined All Blacks side. The IRB has never examined how a travesty like this could have happened.

Henry’s greatest coaching triumph came four years later when the All Blacks won their second World Cup in a tense final against France. How was this done? There is a lot of material about matches and tactics leading up to 2011 and the final. But it amounts mainly to regurgitating newspaper clippings. The real story of the coaching strategies and tactics that worked so brilliantly is not revealed. Henry is quoted by Howitt as saying that this was done to protect the intellectual property the All Blacks have created during his eight years as their coach. But this nonsense does not equate with Henry’s decision in 2012 to play an active coaching role with the Pumas. He was surprised to find that when he visited the All Blacks dressing room after the test at Wellington it was made clear to him he was an unwelcome visitor. The same sort of disappointment faces the reader of this book which promises so much but does not – unlike Henry as a coach – deliver the goods.


Spiro Zavos is a Sydney sports reviewer.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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