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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