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07 Dec 2007 10:33
Graham Henry defied history on Friday when he was reappointed as All Blacks coach despite holding the reins during the team’s worst-ever World Cup performance this year.
The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) has traditionally been an unforgiving employer and no previous coach has survived a failed World Cup campaign.
All Blacks fans reacted with shock in October when the world’s top-ranked team lost 20-18 to France in their first-ever quarterfinal exit from the World Cup.
But acting NZRU chairperson Mike Eagle said Henry (61), who has won 42 Tests and lost just six since being appointed four years ago, was the best of four candidates interviewed on Thursday.
“Graham’s record, both on and off the field, is among the best in All Blacks rugby history,” Eagle said.
“It was disappointing to lose the quarterfinal, but overall they’ve done a magnificent job.
He said the NZRU was convinced the gruff former school master and his assistant coaches, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, had a lot more to contribute to the All Blacks.
Henry said he was grateful and relieved to be given his third two-year contract.
“I’ve got the hunger, the desire—I’m excited about the opportunity and I’ve got the support of the people who really matter,” he told a press conference.
Although most rugby commentators had supported successful Canterbury Crusaders coach Robbie Deans, polls suggested Henry had the support of most of the public.
In rugby-mad New Zealand, the coaching appointment has hogged the headlines in the lead-up to Friday’s decision.
“I think the New Zealand public have been quite amazing,” Henry said.
“They’ve gone out of their way to make sure that I’ve known that they are supportive.”
In the first sign that he recognised some of his previous strategies may have been flawed, Henry admitted withdrawing 22 leading All Blacks from the first half of this year’s Super 14 series was a bad move.
“Certainly it caused a lot of problems. I think in hindsight, that was a mistake,” he said.
But he added it remained important that players get sufficient time to rest and recondition in an increasingly crowded calendar.
Henry had nothing to say about his other controversial policy of rotating players in and out of the team to create more depth.
Critics said the All Black selection was devalued by rotation and that the team that faced France had not played together enough.
He wants the All Blacks to stay faithful to their expansive style of play, despite a resurgence in the northern hemisphere of a game dominated by set pieces and kicking.
“I think our rugby players are skilful, they’re explosive, they enjoy playing an attacking style of rugby,” he said.
“I don’t think they’d enjoy playing a big set-piece kicking game.
I don’t think we’d get the same results that way.”
Henry was interviewed by the NZRU board on Thursday, along with Deans, Wellington Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper and the Waikato Chiefs’ Ian Foster.
His appointment throws up the question of whether Deans will be invited to Australia to coach the Wallabies.
Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O’Neill is reportedly keen on the idea of securing Deans, although talks were put on hold as Deans chased the All Blacks job.
But all Deans was saying on Friday was he was looking forward to returning to the Crusaders, who he has guided to four Super 12 and Super 14 titles since 2000.
“I’d like to coach the All Blacks one day, obviously, but for now that’s not the case,” he said in a radio interview.
“I’ve got a great job to go back to so I’m looking forward to that.”
Henry did not want to dwell on the World Cup loss in the press conference but admitted it haunted him.
“It plays on your mind every day, not the same as the first couple of days [after the loss], but it’s there.
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