THE main Wellington newspaper, The Dominion Post, had a killer photo on its main sports page this week. There was Sir Graham Henry, knighted for coaching the All Blacks to last year’s Rugby World Cup victory, standing arm-in-arm in a circle of Pumas players wearing Pumas training gear. There could be no clearer evidence that Henry has moved from a consultant to the Pumas to being an integral part of the Pumas’ coaching staff as the team, playing in their first Rugby Championship, take on the formidable task of defeating the All Blacks and the Wallabies on their home soil.
Last week in the Herald, I argued the attacks on Wallabies coach Robbie Deans specifically because he was a New Zealander and, therefore, a person incapable of having his heart in defeating the All Blacks was xenophobic nonsense. In the era of professional rugby, ”career trumps nationality”. There was strong support for this argument. But there was, also, some savage (to put it mildly) continuing ranting about Deans being an All Blacks stalking horse. One respondent, a lawyer, even suggested Deans was still on the pay of the NZRU. I pointed out to him he was incorrect. It also involves a total misunderstanding of the role of coaches for national sides in the professional era.
Jake White, the coach of the Springboks when they won the 2007 World Cup and now the Brumbies coach, has told the Wallabies forwards they have to start making the hard yards against the Springboks tonight. And there is unanimous agreement in New Zealand that Henry’s presence, possibly in the coaching box tonight, will disadvantage the All Blacks. He knows their game well and he knows (possibly more importantly) their weaknesses. He also brings a great deal of intellectual property based on a long career of successful coaching at all levels of the game with him to the Pumas. In fact, Henry is not the first All Blacks coach who has become involved in the coaching of the Pumas. Alex Wyllie took over as coach of the Pumas between 1996 and 1999 after his highly successful All Blacks career as a player and coach.
This week, Warren Gatland, another New Zealander, followed a path first walked by Sir Graham when he was appointed head coach of the British and Irish Lions for their 2013 tour of Australia. Gatland has made it clear his ultimate ambition is to coach the All Blacks. But this did not stop Lions chairman Andy Irvine from making the point Gatland had ”earned his badge of honour” as coach.
The real point about the various coaches of the various national sides is not their nationality. Their record as coaches is the issue. Gatland has the Lions job because he has been the most successful coach in European rugby. It is this imperative that nothing succeeds like success that should determine the fate of coaches.
Which brings us to tonight’s Test in Perth. Heyneke Meyer, in his first season as Springboks coach, has presided over three Test victories and two draws – against England and the Pumas. There has been considerable concern in South Africa about the stale and out-of-date tactics adopted by the Springboks this season. The Wallabies have lost to Scotland, won three Tests against Wales and lost two to the All Blacks. Here, too, there has been widespread concern about the quality of the Wallabies play.
A cartoon yesterday in a local newspaper showed Henry and a Pumas player carrying a sack of dollars. Henry is saying: ”Hand on heart, I’m only in it for the love – where is my bag of love.” The cult of the coach can be lucrative. But as Meyer or Deans or Henry will find out this weekend, their teams have to be winners for the cult to flourish.
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