Henry's greatest challenge
November 15, 2010
All Blacks coach Graham Henry is blessed with an abundance of talent to choose from © Getty Images
Despite Scotland's disappointingly ineffective and morale-sapping effort at Murrayfield, the All Blacks' performance showed encouraging signs of the Tri- Nations form of three months earlier.
Sonny Bill Williams confirmed what many had long suspected, that his distinctive off-loading ball skills, if employed as effectively in union as in league, could add another dimension to All Black offensive strategies. Whilst he will no doubt dominate the headlines in the days ahead, Graham Henry's chances of becoming the first successful New Zealand coach in the professional era to lead his country to the sport's ultimate prize do not depend on the form of one player, or even on the form of his team. It is really down to his own form, and the manner in which he deploys the resources and personnel available to him.
No one seriously doubts that this crop of All Blacks is good enough to become world champions. No one seriously doubts that Henry is a good enough coach to get them there. But the same was said in the build-up to the 2007 tournament, and the one before that, and the one before that. In Cardiff in 2007, the All Blacks were not so much undone by the French, or even the mistakes made by referee Wayne Barnes. The real issue was the All Blacks' inadequate preparation, for which Henry was responsible and for which he was not held to account by the NZRFU.
Henry's performance before and during this year's Tri-Nations showed a return to top form, consistencies in selection and brilliant execution of a range of on-field strategies evident in some commanding All Black performances. Then there was that awkward break, during which the domestic NPC was played and the squad for the current tour was selected and prepared.
One of the dilemmas for coaches these days is how much to play, or not play, players. Are they best served by constant and consistent match practice, or the careful supervision of their workload in order to avoid the perils of burn-out. In the build-up to 2007 we had the notorious conditioning programme alongside a micro-managed rotational selection policy. The effect was to produce an All Black squad that was under-prepared, oddly-selected and mentally soft. When the heat came on, they melted.
In Hong Kong two weeks ago, and to a lesser extent at Twickenham last weekend, there were worrying signs of the same symptoms - an All Black side exposed to the dangers of ambush because of their unpreparedness. Critics seized upon the blunders of Stephen Donald and Isaia Toeava to illustrate the point. And perhaps they did have a point, here was Henry's perverseness again on display, better players like Aaron Cruden, Colin Slade and Robbie Fruean left at home after compelling NPC form for the sake of two players who have rarely convinced in All Black colours. To be fair, Toeva seemed to play himself back into form at Murrayfield. But is he really a wing option and is a Test match really the place to be attempting rehabilitation?
With the All Blacks beginning to re-establish the fluency and continuity in their play I would expect them to go on to achieve victories in Dublin and Cardiff. The next challenge for Henry then becomes how he manages his players in 2011. How much Super Rugby will the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw play in advance of Tri-Nations 2011 and the World Cup? How will the conflicting demands of Super Rugby franchises be managed to complement the needs of the All Blacks in this year of all years? Physical and mental hardness honed in the heat of battle or replicated in the gym and the dreary environment of training camps? This is Henry's greatest challenge, and the All Blacks' eventual success or failure turns on the extent to which he gets that right.
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