Wednesday 21 September 2016

It's All About Schmidt

News from the Land of the Long White Cloud confirmed that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has signed a contract extension that will keep him at the helm of New Zealand rugby until 2017. Although not a complete surprise, given the current winning record, it may have caused some wake turbulence further down the slipstream. Particularly for Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter. Both of whom might have fancied their chances leading the All Blacks post the World Cup next year. 

As yet Schmidt and the IRFU have not held discussions about extending the current contract which last until 2016. However as that date gets closer the rugby landscape may have changed little in terms of available jobs following Hansen’s decision. Not to mention Stuart Lancaster’s extended contract until 2020 agreed with the Rugby Football Union last month. Ruling out in principle Schmidt’s chance at the England job. On the other hand it does leave Schmidt available to emulate Graham Henry’s CV and take the British and Irish Lions to his homeland in 2017. 

In addition it would offer the current Irish boss the chance to take on his home nation and indeed "interview himself" against Steve Hansen. The man who will remain in situ until the end of the 2017 season and be in charge when the Lions arrive on tour. Albeit Schmidt’s already highly regarded stock has risen further following Ireland’s victories over South Africa and Australia in Dublin last month. It pales in comparison to Hansen's tenure where he has overseen New Zealand win 38 of 42 Tests, with only just two defeats. Also lifting the Rugby Championship for the last three years as well. Making it no surprise New Zealand rugby want the winning continuity.

But like buses the managerial hot seats never come when you want them or feel ready. Nor indeed do they last their tenure if the match defeats start to add up. As the former Leinster coach Michael Cheika could vouch. Not imagining in October he would become the new Wallabies coach so quickly. Almost within days of Ewen McKenzie’s unavoidable resignation after only about a year after his appointment in the wake of the Wallabies defeat to the Lions in July 2013. A series that led to Robbie Deans reign being discontinued and the favourite in waiting McKenzie leaving the ACT Brumbies for the top post.

However events overtook his time with the Wallabies and so Cheika was the next obvious choice following his triumphs at Leinster, Stade Francais and NSW Waratahs.

A haste that is unlikely across the Tasman Sea where transitions have tended to be smoother in recent years for the All Blacks with Sir Graham Henry proving the longest serving coach for a while. Racking up almost seven years in the job. A chance earned after restoring Wales dismal run between 1998 and 2004.

On his arrival to All Blacks Henry finally secured the World Cup in 2011 and recovered a trophy that had eluded the rugby mad since they hosted the inaugural event in 1987. And in the intervening decades had seen John Hart lose his job after the semi-final defeat in Cardiff to France in 2011. A fate that eventually befell his predecessor Laurie Mains some months after the 1995 World Cup final loss in Johannesburg to South Africa. Henry finally righted those wrongs in 2011, after which he stepped down and saw his assistant Hansen step up. Proving a very natural progression.

Something which could not be said about the move by Vern Cotter to Scotland. Perhaps the only route left open to the former Bay of Plenty coach to get international experience in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Unfortunately Scotland is a road well-travelled and one that cost Matt Williams his reputation to some degree by the time he finished in 2002. His two years rendering a poor string of results and a reversal of fortune after developing some renowned in Ireland with Leinster, and the Ireland A side. Leaving Williams looking destined for bigger things in either hemisphere. Albeit his two year stint at Ulster was cut short due to family reasons in 2009. But seeing him retreat into the land of Punditry and removed now from frontline coaching with his achievements lost in the ether. 

Back in the autumn of 1999 Williams coached the Leinster backs in the European Cup campaign, a prelude to becoming the head coach a year later. He also undertook the role of defensive coach for Ireland in 2001. As the first Australian Super 12 Coach to move to Europe he took Leinster to the inaugural Celtic League Final as well reaching the semi-final of the European Heineken Cup. It remains to be seen whether Cotter can do more from his current Scottish base and build on his hard earned reputation at Clermont. 

So far it looks promising so far given that for seventy minutes his team came close to ending the All Blacks streak of wins at Murrayfield. But the balance of statistics show the job has taken its toll on Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson as well. Bad precedent for Cotter who might now settle for an assistant role with Schmidt should he take over from Hansen in a few years time. Reflecting a role reversal as it was Joe who came to work for Cotter at Clermont Auvergne as backs coach in 2007.

On the surface it seems that Schmidt may have fast tracked himself following the move from Cotter when he took up Leinster's offer in 2010. Showing a clear ambition and fearlessness that has manifested itself in the achievements of Leinster during his time. A role that had just been vacated by Michael Cheika a coach who had brought Leinster the Holy Grail in 2009 with their Heineken Cup win. Breaking the stranglehold of Munster along the way, with the help of Rocky Elsom and a young Mr Sexton.

Into such a cauldron stepped Schmidt, who then went on to add two more Heineken Cups and a string of other titles. Proving his metal beyond doubt.

Amidst all these musical chairs there is one Kiwi who appears forgotten who only twelve months ago was a shoe in after the tour to Australia finally reversed the Lions continuous losing record down under. Warren Gatland becoming the coach to finally end that sixteen year drought and revive the Lions brand to former glories. And more importantly, its commercial strength with the 2-1 test win. The final test a devastating display of the Northern Hemisphere’s raw power, burgeoning talent and sheer skill. Done also against a negative backdrop after Gatland omitted the 2009 Lions captain, Brian O’Driscoll, from the final test.

Having retained his post with Wales throughout that two year Lions campaign Gatland was very much viewed as the odds on favourite to take the Lions to his home nation in 2017. In fact confirming his interest and availability very publicly after the triumph in Sydney. But as former Ireland coaches Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney now know rugby is a results business and allows for no slippage or sentimentality whatsoever. 

O’Sullivan very tarnished following Ireland’s disastrous 2007 World Cup in France. Not unlike Gatland in the previous tournament in 20013, With Declan Kidney seeing his star fade within twelve months of winning a Grand Slam and eventually losing the confidence of the IRFU in 2013.

It was Kidney who replaced Gatland as Irish coach in 2009 and immediately secured a Grand Slam at the Millennium Stadium in 2009. Deservedly earning himself the IRB Coach of the Year honour in doing so. Then two years later Ireland reached the quarter finals of the rugby world cup only to be defeated 22–10 by Wales – a side coached by Warren Gatland. But Kidney’s fortunes declined further when Ireland fell to their worst IRB World Ranking of 9th by which time they had finished 5th in the 2013 Six Nations Championship. After which Kidney's contract was ended and all those heroics leading Munster to Heineken Cup trophies truly forgotten.

But Kidney was the last domestic coach at Munster until Anthony Foley was given the job this season. The vacancy unexpectedly arising when Kiwi Rob Penney opted not stay for the remaining third year of his contract and headed off to Japan. Not unlike his predecessor Tony McGahan, who in leaving Munster left without any real continuity plan on the coaching front. Losing as well that imaginative and creative spirit from the southern hemisphere that helped make them almost invincible at Thomond Park. 

Something Foley has been unable to replicate as yet and now fighting for their sporting lives in the new Championship this season. Fortunate to see an Ian Keatley penalty earn a losing bonus point in the 26-19 defeat at the Stade Marcel Michelin last weekend. Leaving Foley's side with an uphill task to progress to the last eight with matches to come away to Saracens and then home to Sale. Lying now in third position in pool one, four points adrift of Clermont and three behind Saracens. But as captain Peter O'Mahony said after wards the losing bonus point will give the side renewed hope.

"We've got to fight for our lives," he said. "We have two huge games in the New Year and all we can do is fight for our lives."

In fairness Foley put his hand up and took the Munster job before he perhaps would have wanted in ideal circumstances. But like buses the job might never come when you want it. So you have to jump when it arrives – even unexpectedly - and enjoy the trip. 

It seems to have worked very for Joe Schmidt - so far.

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Monday 5 September 2016

Wood Backs Stuart Lancaster

Getty Images
Tom Wood says Stuart Lancaster and his coaches should "come out fighting" as the Rugby Football Union begins its review into England's display at the World Cup on Monday.

The hosts failed to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time.

But Wood, 28, backed Lancaster, saying: "I think I can speak for most of the lads - I want Stuart and the coaches to come out fighting.

"They've done themselves proud in terms of their preparation and work-rate."

The performance of Lancaster and lieutenants Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt will all be under review as the RFU decides whether they have a future.

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie has said there would be no "hasty reaction" to England's exit, while Lancaster, who was appointed in 2011, has said he would find it "hard to walk away" from the job.

The 46-year-old former teacher has received the backing of former New Zealand and Wales head coach Graham Henry but there have been calls from former England internationals for Lancaster to leave his role.

Wood added: "The coaches will have learned an awful lot during this campaign and over the past three-and-a-half years.

"At the top, they are going to come under an awful lot of pressure to ring the changes, but I can't speak highly enough of Stuart as a bloke and as a coach. I back him."

The position of captain Chris Robshaw is also under close scrutiny after England seemed to lack leadership in key moments of the pivotal matches against Wales and Australia.

It was Robshaw who opted for an attacking line-out from a late penalty against Wales instead of directing Owen Farrell to go for goal. Had Farrell landed a difficult three points, England would have secured a draw - and would have been more likely to reach the quarter-finals.

Robshaw edged ahead of Wood for the captaincy at the start of Lancaster's reign, but the Northampton flanker said: "He's a strong character is Chris and he's been here before. He knows he's got the backing of the group."

Asked if he would like to be captain England if Robshaw was demoted, Wood replied: "I'd try to do what's right for the team.

"If I was asked to do it for the benefit of the team, then I'd consider it very carefully and probably front up."

England Review Ends Lancaster Tenure

Stuart Lancaster has left his post as England coach following the team's early exit from the World Cup.

England became the first host nation to be eliminated in the group stages when they lost matches to Wales and Australia in Pool A.

"I ultimately accept and take responsibility for the team's performance," said Lancaster.

Lancaster, 46, was made permanent coach in 2012 and won 28 of his 46 games, but failed to win the Six Nations.

"I took on the role in difficult circumstances and it has been a huge challenge to transition the team with many hurdles along the way," he added.

"However, I am immensely proud of the development of this team and I know that there is an incredibly strong foundation for them to progress to great things in the future.

"We have played some excellent rugby and it was always going to be tough to get the right level of experience into them in time for 2015. It is a young group of players with the huge majority available for the World Cup in Japan in 2019, where I believe their recent experience will make them genuine contenders."

Lancaster has won 28 (61%) and drawn one of his 46 Tests, losing 17

A review into England performance at the World Cup took place after the tournament, with Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie stating that Lancaster agreed he should step down from his role.

''The Rugby World Cup was hugely disappointing for everyone associated with the England team and the subsequent review into the team's performance was always intended to be extremely comprehensive, which it has been," said Ritchie.

"Following the review, Stuart and I met, where we agreed that he should step down as head coach. This was subsequently ratified by the RFU board."

He added: "Despite the results during this World Cup he has much to be proud of, and has embedded a new group of players that will be representing England for a long time to come. Looking forward, we will leave no stone unturned to ensure England achieves sustained success in the future."

There is no word yet from the RFU on the future of Lancaster's coaching team of Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt. The full World Cup review will be presented to an RFU board meeting on 17 November.

The search will then begin for a replacement for Lancaster in time for next year's Six Nations.


Look Out Leinster... The Money Talks

May you live in interesting times..... 

Or so says a Chinese proverb - supposedly - which has long since been assumed into the English lexicon. It is a phrase that could be used to describe rugby in the Irish provinces at the moment and the potential player salary questions that could lead to some turbulent times ahead. As will the questioning of the long standing success of centrally contracted players by the Irish Rugby Football Union [IRFU] as the four-year gap until the next rugby world cup will expose some weaknesses at Leinster, Munster and Ulster. With Connacht inching closer to reaching the elite Champions Cup this season and complicating things. Having proved to be a calibre above their competition for a number season under coach Pat Lam. 

If Robbie Henshaw should make an Ian Madigan type move, then it will dent their armour a little for a period in the Galway Sportsgrounds.

For Madigan though the decision to move to Bordeaux Begles is one that reflects a clear thought process and one not weakened by any fear of not retaining a place on the Irish squad. Rather a conviction that he has done his country proud when asked, and indeed his province when needed, and received comparatively little recognition for it all. Indeed, being asked to front the Argentinian onslaught in Cardiff last October at very short notice when Johnny Sexton had been named in the starting line-up – when still slightly injured. With a number of seasons at Leinster being used as utility player and then facing being in the shadow of Sexton once again, a move was probably always on the cards. With Bristol testing the waters initially and then the French side securing his services in the end. 

The financial package making it all the more palatable as Madigan moves from six thousand a month a year ago to ten times that amount next year - with other perks thrown in.

In the final analysis it will be the money, or lack of it, that will curb Leinster’s enthusiasm and return them to tightrope they walked when holding onto Brian O’Driscoll as the IRFU were forced to break their salary benchmarks- to retain his services. Albeit the reality of a move abroad was less likely for record breaking Irish centre. Which was not the case for Sexton when Racing Metro came knocking. Or indeed for Paul O’Connell, who in his elder statesmen role can repeat what Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell have all done with Toulon. A kind of pension planning it has to be said and a trend started by Jonny Wilkinson that allowed him extend his career in the warmer weather of southern France. Similarly, as O’Connell calls time on his international days the requirements for training camps in Carton House simply disappear. 

A balance that Sexton fought hard to maintain ahead of the rugby world cup during his Paris years. And did so at a cost to his body and soul as there was often too little proper rest between matches for club and country. But then again during the past four years’ Irish rugby was gearing up for the rugby world cup and the chance to improve on the disappointments in New Zealand four years previously. With coach Jose Schmidt set to benefit from those centrally agreed IRFU player contracts which at times left the province suffering at times during the Pro 12 with the absence of key players. 

However, the 2015 rugby world cup extolled much damage on a number of Irish players making them unavailable for their provinces. Names like Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Conor Murray, Richardt Strauss, Keith Earls, Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe – a point valiantly made by former Irish centre Gordon D’Arcy in his Irish Times column this week. With a number of key retirements over the years also debilitating both Munster and Leinster impacting perhaps the early departure of both in the Champions Cup. A factor that will undoubtedly will affect their seeding for next year’s tournament. As will the lack of pay out for reaching the latter stages affect their gross revenue number for the season.

The nitty-gritty will boil down to progressing the gifted young players from the academy – and offer them a chance pick up the slack in the Pro12 - whom many facing a season or two on old contracts. Which will be buttons compared to their regular first team colleagues. 

In the case of Leinster, where they have some potential stars coming up the ranks it will create fodder for hungry sports agents seeking to maximise their client’s potential. No doubt there is a vast difference between an Academy pay-packet and a basic of 6k a month on the first team. Albeit it pales into insignificance with those on €40-50 thousand a month in France. That Super 14 league where All Blacks out half Dan Carter is set to earn one million pounds sterling a year at Racing Metro. The Kiwi’s salary a full half a million euro better than the next best paid, Matt Giteau at Toulon or Leigh Halfpenny. But for rugby world cup winner Carter, the demands of the All Blacks now pass on to the next generation and so international duty is no longer an issue. 

As it will probably be for Gateau, who along with Drew Mitchell, were given special dispensation by the Australian Rugby Union to play for their country in the world cup after they rescinded the ruling that prohibited overseas based players being included in the Wallabies. A change that clearly paid dividends for Australia and rewarded the efforts of their coach Michael Cheika, who proved it a pointless rule given the nation reached the world cup final – and won the Rugby Championship. Even if it was implemented for all the right reasons initially. The likelihood that Madigan will get any special dispensation of a similar nature from the IRFU – albeit there is no written rule - seems unlikely. A factor that he would have taken into account in his decision making. 

As with England - where the skills and ability of Steffon Armitage - were deemed surplus to requirements despite his impressive performances for Toulon over recent years in the Heineken Cup. In the post tournament analysis Stuart Lancaster lost his job and could have done with Armitage as it might have allowed England progress further in their home rugby world cup. But rules are rules it seems.

More importantly, in soccer a player like Ian Madigan – arguably nurtured at school’s level by Blackrock College then developed at the Leinster Academy and further supported by the IRFU - will leave the Irish set up without any payback – anywhere to anyone. In the soccer world the talent is an asset and can only be transferred for agreed fees between clubs, as in any normal commercial transaction. With some added rules and clauses that can even permit the originating schoolboy retain an ongoing percentage of future transfer fees. 

So as professionalism penetrates rugby further over the coming years the clubs and Provinces will no doubt seek similar policies and regulations. Especially when the TV money, sponsorship reach their maximum and the need for money increases. After all, if an agent finds French clubs for a number of the younger Irish talent for example, the provinces could be decimated if the IRFU is unable match the big money offers as they arise. For Madigan it was a simple decision both on and off the field offering him some interesting times.

Look out Leinster.... money talks!


Contador Triggers Skyfall at Vuelta

La Vuelta
The Vuelta has this year, and not for the first time, surpassed the Tour de France for pure excitement. With Sunday’s stage a return to the old style cycling with the top riders battling it out mano-a-mano using their own intuition. Making the relatively short stage 119km stage o Sunday to Aramon Formigal in the Spanish Pyrenees the battle ground for those chasing this trophy in 2016. A breakaway at the start of the day triggered by Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff setting the pace for the day. The former champion anxious to make an impact on home soil after a bad fall early doors, and two similarly unlucky seasons at Le Tour. Keen to reverse a gap of three minutes separating him from the leaders of classification; Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome of Team Sky.

As the day unravelled Contador targeted an early downhill section and executed a plan to devastating effect testing the wherewithal of all those around him. A plan that also suited Quintana who on Saturday had tried – halfheartedly - it has to be said – to shake off the Froome powerhouse and extend his 54 second margin. Knowing the English cyclist is always keen to win a stage at a grand tour event and achieving that on Stage 11 at Pena Cabarga. But also beating Quintana in the process as both engaged in battle in the first weekend. A week later though Froome had dropped three minutes and thirty-seven seconds as the Contador - Quintana breakaway reshaped the general classification. With an unusual sight - it has to be said - of seeing Team Sky in such disarray. So no doubt there was much restless sleep into Monday morning when the true damage may look irreversible.

It was stage which left bizarrely left Froome isolated in a chasing group with only teammate David Lopez for company after his team were stuck in the peloton - tired from yesterday’s exertions perhaps. Any reduction in time loss made better thanks to Orica-Bike Exchange riders - who did him some favours - followed by an Astana trio and then BMC Racing. Without them Froome was marooned and helpless without the usual team Sky reinforcements surrounding him. Rarely ever seen so critical have they become to the Wiggins and Froome victories over the years in France during the summer. Chris Froome never without Richie Porte the year of his first win. Or last year with Geraint Thomas everywhere.

On the steep climb in Northern Navarra all the cyclists were exposed to the real physics of nature and the breakaway saw three of them still racing for the finish line together on the narrowest sections with a kilometre to go. Then as Contador got burned off, Quintana kept the pace to the top with Gianluca Brambilla of Etixx-Quick-Step in his slipstream fighting to grab the stage. An exhausted Contador fourth having consumed much energy driving the initial breakaway and knowing he would struggle for the last sector if there were a handful of riders still left in contention. A result though which leaves him in fourth, by seconds, and now within reach of a possible third place podium. A fight he must take on with Colombian Esteban Chabes. The red Jersey now out of reach for another year. But even a third place seemingly impossible a week ago with his injured legs after a fall.

Nairo Quintana looks back to his best, something which eluded him in France during July. His strength contrasting with a lost looking Froome who almost seemed human such was the exhaustion – and frustration – etched on his face. For that reason, the stage was a classic and the riders wearing their courage, instinct and heart on their sleeves. A segment which left little need for race directors and radio chats as the leaders fought the conditions and heat to the maximum. An excitement that Team Sky have strangled from many of the Tour de France stages many of which have become almost chess like. With race strategy run too much from the car seat rather than the bike saddle. Cyclists bombarded with instructions rather the old way where you raced as you felt and invented your own stage tactics with ore cunning. 

As the Tour at times is monotonous La Vuelta is the opposite and with Team Sky perhaps less focused the race has opened up/ With all the Spanish cyclists also desperate to win stages and catch the eye. Indeed, at different points on Sunday TV viewers saw the strength of Alejandro Valverde, energy of Dani Navarro, and diligence of Jonathan Castroviejo. All of which makes for a vastly more exciting stages and now made even more so by the result of Stage 15 in Northern Spain. Aided by stunning scenery and the abnormal heatwave which saw the riders battling 37C on Sunday. But few will be taking anything for granted going into the 158 km Stage 16 on Monday that heads down to the east coast for the week before arriving in Madrid.

Last Sunday Froome spoke to no media straight after the stage and will no doubt do his talking on the bike over the coming days. Perhaps after Tuesday’s rest day and ahead of the time trial as the Vuelta makes it way down from the mountains of Aragon and down to a flat stage finish on Monday, after a one point 3rd category climb – the long downhill descent to Vinaroz offering a chance for escapees to make their mark. All the leader’s intent on recovery from yesterday when some rest might be the order of the day. Contador and Quintana happy with their efforts having rearranged the leaderboard more favourably. With Quintana now in sight of a Vuelta title unless Team Sky can reverse matters

Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford also spoke with ITV Sport after the stage, explaining that Movistar and Tinkoff had played their cards to perfection and reaped the benefits.

"Sometimes you have to take your hat off to people and just say, 'well done,'" Brailsford added. "That was a great move and it paid off for Nairo and Alberto.

"We just have to sit down and look at it and keep on going. Sometimes in sport you take a punch in the face, turn around sit yourself down and say right, there six days of racing left, we're still in the same position as we were this morning and we'll just keep on going," added Brailsford.

La Vuelta - General Classification

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Friday 2 September 2016

Football Legends - Franz Beckenbauer

International career 

West Germany: 1965 - 1977 
103 caps, 14 goals 
69 wins; 19 draws; 15 losses 

1974 FIFA World Cup™ winner 
1966 FIFA World Cup runner-up 
1970 FIFA World Cup third place 
1972 UEFA European Championship winner
1976 UEFA European Championship runner-up 

1974 FIFA World Cup Silver Ball 

FIFA World Cup appearances 
18 caps, 5 goals 
14 wins; 1 draw; 3 losses 

England 1966
West Germany 5-0 Switzerland (2 goals) 
West Germany 0-0 Argentina 
West Germany 2-1 Spain 
West Germany 4-0 Uruguay (1) 
West Germany 2-1 Soviet Union (1) 
England 4-2 West Germany 

Mexico 1970
West Germany 2-1 Morocco 
West Germany 5-2 Bulgaria 
West Germany 3-1 Peru 
West Germany 3-2 England (1) 
Italy 4-3 West Germany 

Germany 1974 
West Germany 1-0 Chile 
West Germany 3-0 Australia 
East Germany 1-0 West Germany 
West Germany 2-0 Yugoslavia 
West Germany 4-2 Sweden 
West Germany 1-0 Poland 
West Germany 2-1 Netherlands 

Club career 
1964 - 1977: Bayern Munich 
1977 - 1980: New York Cosmos 
1980 - 1982: Hamburg 
1983: New York Cosmos 

Intercontinental Cup winner: 1976 
UEFA European Cup winner: 1974, 1975, 1976 
UEFA Cup Winners' Cup winner: 1967 
German Championship winner: 1969, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1982 
North American Soccer League winner: 1977, 1978, 1980 
DFB German Cup winner: 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971 

FIFA Order of Merit: awarded in 2004 
MasterCard Team of the Century inductee 
FIFA 100 inductee 
European Footballer of the Year: 1972, 1976 
German Footballer of the Year: 1966, 1968, 1974, 1976 
North American Soccer League MVP: 1977 

Coaching career

Club teams 
1990 - 1991 Marseille 
1993 - 1994, 1996: Bayern Munich 

National teams
1984 - 1990: West Germany 

1990 FIFA World Cup winner 
1986 FIFA World Cup runner-up 
1994 German Championship winner 
1996 UEFA Cup winner

Thursday 1 September 2016

Where Did it All Go Wrong Sir Graham?

In 2001 sitting with Gareth Edwards at The Celtic Manor Resort he took a phone call from Rob Howley, the Welsh scrum half and Lions tourist, who was just back from an unsuccessful Lions Tour to Australia. Graham Henry’s side beaten in two tests having won the first in Brisbane. Not unlike most in the Northern Hemisphere Edwards was curious as to what had gone wrong down under given the negative newspaper reports, stories of player unrest and the overall series loss. Particularly as Henry had been appointed following a run of wins with Wales and a reputation in the ascendancy with all expectations he would deliver victory. Henry himself hoping no doubt, to boost his coaching career following the move to the Principality after failure to secure the All Blacks role in 1998.

The man who did, John Hart – and cut from similar gruff cloth to Henry – found Twickenham the venue for his downfall when France beat the All Blacks in the semi-finals in the 1999 Rugby World Cup/. The damage inflicted by the French devastating and so New Zealand sought new management and left the selectors unable to retain Hart with the surprising loss making the trophy still as elusive as ever. David Kirk the only winning captain in 1987 when the inaugural tournament was held in New Zealand. The two replacements being Wayne Smith and John Mitchell for a four-year period. Those intervening for Henry spent with the Auckland Blue defensive needs – and also walking the dog. With days when he must have borrowed that infamous line used about George Best; “So where did it all go wrong Graham?”.

For the players in 2001 it may have been the toughness of his methods or the style in which he went about the game at the time. For the non-playing experts, the Kiwi had just not validated his choice as the first overseas Lions coach and falling short of his immediate predecessors in South Africa in 1997, Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer. Who had convincingly won the series against all expectations in against the Springboks. And now, a decade and half later, Graham Henry has been knighted for services to rugby; secured the return of the Rugby World Cup to New Zealand in 2011, reversed roles to defeat the British and Irish Lions 3-0 in 2005 and now considered the “go to” man all things rugby in the world. His latest clinical trial is with Leinster, where as a consultant he is following the same recent stint with Argentina recently. When he was readying them for membership of the Rugby Championship and with success given their performance against Ireland last October.

When the All Blacks job finally came it the Rugby World Cup again was to loom large for the Kiwi as the quarter-final was a meeting in 2007 with France, yet again, to be played this time in Cardiff. The result a shock for all at the game and on TV in the southern oceans. The defeat devastating for a strong New Zealander tam who had seen the French stage a second half comeback to lose 18-20. A defeat that came with much impact and forced Henry to assess his own side where was seeing their failure to deal with pressure. With some harsh words aimed elsewhere also. None more so than with the referee on that occasion Wayne Barnes. All amply covered in his autobiography The Final Word written b Bob Hewitt:

"As far as Graham was concerned, the major reason the All Blacks had lost was not because of conditioning or rotation policies or decisions by his captain, but purely and simply because the officials had refereed only one team, to a degree unprecedented in the history of the sport.

"He knew if a comparable situation had occurred in other sports, it would be investigated. But there existed a blissful purity about rugby, or at least that's how everyone wanted to perceive it. It wasn't politically correct to even suggest the match officials might have favoured one team."

"I've been involved in 140 test matches and 20 years of coaching at provincial level or the level above and 12 years of coaching international rugby and I've never been involved in a game that was like this game."

For the last Lions Tour returning to Australia the job for another Kiwi however. This time Warren Gatland who led them to a series victory – with the one test loss in Melbourne to the Wallabies – and the restoration of honours secured in Sydney in July 2013. A triumph that amended for 2001 and created momentum that offers hope perhaps of avenging defeats in New Zealand under Sir Clive Woodward in 2005. And as things currently appear, Warren Gatland, will reprise his role and lead the Tourists to his homeland next summer. But whatever about beating the antipodean old enemy the last time out, a return to the Land of the Long White Cloud for this Kiwi will be as tough as it gets in sport. 

As it would have been for all those others in the running, such as Joe Schmidt or Vern Cotter. The latter two being unlikely choices given their weaker CV’s in this of type of international rugby combat. Gatland clearly the commander in chief in these parts, after also working with McGeechan’s successful backroom in 2009 against the Springboks. Although 2017 will expose that winning Lions record to be tested the third time out and Gatland appears unfazed by such a daunting task. He will also be auditioning for that vacancy when Steve Hansen steps down from the All Blacks in 2019, with Gatland’s every decision, quote and tactics analysed. 

Although at this vantage point, a victory against the All Blacks looks as unlikely as it did a decade ago. Or indeed as it did in Australia before the tour started. But the Gatland will be buoyed by a belief that it is not impossible having bridged the 17-year gap of losses in Australia the last time out. Although last season New Zealand also quelled the new Wallaby dawn of Michael Cheika in the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham another promising Wallabies dawn with Richie McCaw repeating his 2011 achievement under Henry’s leadership. Ensuring the letter was bankable rugby expert with even current speculation linking the 70-year-old with a return - in some capacity - to work with Howley and Wales in the 6 Nations as Gatland gets increasingly distracted with Lions planning.

Further north meanwhile Vern Cotter has decided that another season with Scotland will suffice and likely to return back to New Zealand. The Highlanders a most probable destination for him. A role that Ireland’s Joe Schmidt was touted for and looked inclined to accept as his own ambitions fine tune their focus towards his homeland also. The next steps key for Joe’s ambitions in that sense. Although it looks more realistic that Ireland will retain his services until 2019. By which time things on his horizons might be somewhat clearer – both personally and professionally. A time line which appears to also meet the familial needs for the Schmidt’s as they are a vital part of his overall thinking. Also one that would coincide with the extension proffered to Hansen at the helm of the All Blacks beyond 2017, and lead to the next Rugby World Cup in Japan.

With Cotter back on home turf, Schmidt would look to build on his Irish successes as Gatland remains dependent on his Lions fortunes to earn any consideration as the next Kiwi national coach. Clearly the race is now on. However coaching reputations can rise as easily as they fall - at all levels of the game - as Henry has proven. 

Perhaps no higher risk taker in this regard at the moment than Conor O’Shea who has from the relative security of Harlequins chosen the international stage with Italy as the next career step. History suggesting that one or two victories a season being the maximum of the possibilities. Yet O’Shea will be viewing it as a move to the cut and thrust of the Six Nations Championship dugout. A decision that no doubt will enhance his value in Ireland and perhaps England given that Eddie Jones may not be their last non-English coach. In the short term though the key task with Italy will not be easy. But O’Shea doesn’t seem to shirk those tougher assignments. But it is the Steve Hansen story that shows those bizarre turns in coaching careers most clearly. The man now being considered the best All Blacks coach ever. 

Ironic isn’t it as in 2003 he stood down from the Wales job, after mixed results, and looking the exact opposite. Albeit with one very impressive performance by Wales in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Although with no victory against England in the quarter-final and unable to make a breakthrough for the principality and meet his own high standards. As Henry’s replacement at the Welsh Rugby Union he then accepted another offer from his mentor and became his Number 2 for New Zealand. A place where he has been immovable ever since. Indeed, unfazed by replacing the triumphant Henry post in 2011 and even ensuring a seamless transition that has secured another Webb Ellis trophy for good measure in 2015. 

The last final the All Blacks finest hour supposedly until the current Rugby Championship where they have demolished Australia in the Bledisoe Cup both at home and away – once again. Such momentum suggesting that Hansen’s number two, Ian Foster, may be next in line should this winning formula continue. The former Waikato Chief’s player and coach regarded as one of greatest Kiwi players ever to have never won an All Blacks Cap. And promotion from within being the All Blacks preferred method of succession. Although Gatland followed a similar path at Waikato to Foster, he did play seventeen times for New Zealand. Albeit never in a test match as his biggest opponent - as a hooker - was Sean Fitzpatrick. 

Then after being considered for a New Zealand coaching role Gatland elected to stay in Ireland after a tour in 1989 and joined Galwegians. Then success at the club brought a role leading Connacht some years later and then eventually Ireland called in 1998. The job ending four years later with the sack and Eddie O’Sullivan replacing him. The latter suffering his own problems in the 2007 World Cup. Meanwhile Gatland went to London and started as forwards coach with WASPS and in three years securing a number of titles. In short reinvigorating a reputation as a no nonsense operator. Especially having raised the London club from the bottom of the Premiership and taking on the coach job when Nigel Melville moved to Gloucester. A couple of years in New Zealand saw him attract the attention of Wales in 2007 where he has solidified his coaching reputation. Those Kiwi links with Wales unbreakable it seems after the Henry and Hansen years.

Joe Schmidt on the other hand arrived to Leinster after a few years at Clermont Auvergne as backs coach to Vern Cotter. The two men part of winning the Top 14 in 2010 and also runners up 2006–07, 2007–08 and 2008–09. With Cotter then reaching a Heineken Cup in 2013 but losing out to the mighty Toulouse in 2013 – after Joe had left France for Ireland. A place where a few legendary months - many years prior when living in Mullingar on a sabbatical year - Schmidt earned coaching headlines with Wilson’s Hospital School, Multyfarnham. 

That reputation though was really solidified after replacing Cheika at Leinster rugby and adding two more Heineken Cups, a Pro 12 title and then a Challenge Cup trophy. Solid results which made him the obvious choice for Ireland when Declan Kidney’s time ran out in 2013. His record perhaps marginally tainted for some when Ireland failed to reach the last four in the World Cup in England and were hammered by a rampant Argentina. Albeit fielding an understrength team due to the numerous injuries. But a performance nonetheless that may have impacted his own thinking and the weight of public expectation that his system had engendered. Causing him to question his readiness perhaps for the next step. Hence Ireland the most sensible option at this time. Unlike the poison chalice of leading the Lions to his homeland in ten months. 

For Gatland though any ambition the Hamilton man harbours for that top job in rugby for any New Zealander, the offer of the British and Irish Lions Tour is one he cannot refuse. And like Quade Cooper - the Kiwi out half who elects to play for Australia - Gatland can be assured of a similarly hostile reception in New Zealand when leading the enemy. Indeed, he will be hearing the Haka twenty-four seven given rugby is the national sport and his actions bordering on mutiny as he arrives with the Lions. But perhaps no tougher character to take those challenges on, and one fitted with that innate Kiwi self-belief that makes a series victory not beyond the Lions possibilities – in his mind. Indeed, that is the way he undertakes every role and his success with Galwegians, Connacht, London Wasps, Wales, Waikato Chiefs and the Lions suggests one should not bet against him. 

On the other hand, O’Shea will be thankful he is spared similar treatment as Ireland must travel to Italy in 2017. So any hostile AVIVA Stadium will have to wait until the Six Nations Championship of 2018. In the meantime, Ireland will meet New Zealand in a double header in November, with the first match to be played in Chicago. The return leg at the Aviva a fortnight later. Both chances for Schmidt to enhance his reputation as he battles with Hansen. Perhaps seeking revenge for that near miss a couple of seasons ago in Dublin against the All Black visitors. But by 2019 who knows how careers will have evolved and the only certainty that Steve Hansen will have stood down. 

The only open question being who will be taking his place. Or who has piece the magic needed for the role. Schmidt is a most likely candidate, all things being equal. But would not discount Ian Foster. Funnily enough when Graham Henry was reappointed in 2007, after being forced to re-apply after the All Blacks defeat World Cup quarter-finals, the New Zealand Rugby Union also conducted interviews three other short-listed candidates, Robbie Deans, Colin Cooper and Ian Foster.

One thing is for sure is that much time has passed since that chat with Edwards in 2001 and the world rugby landscape is vastly different these days. But some things never change as talent always rises to the top.

In 2016 it is not only Sir Graham Henry.... but also Sir Gareth Edwards. 

Wonder where it all went wrong?

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