Curtain falls on Henry's year of redemption
December 1, 2008
Graham Henry celebrates his side's victory over England at Twickenham with the Hillary Shield © Getty Images
All Blacks head coach Graham Henry has heaped praise on his side after another stand-out year that culminated with an historic undefeated tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
A little over a year ago Henry and his side were on their way home from Europe after a shock Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of France and the knives were out after another high-profile failure on the sport's biggest stage.
A testing time for Henry followed as he bore the brunt of the criticism and few predicted his eventual re-appointment to his post. However, he has rewarded the New Zealand Rugby Union for their faith by overseeing the resurgence of the All Blacks as the major force in international rugby.
The result is that he now heads home to New Zealand assured of a warm welcome.
A Grand Slam and the Hillary Shield - for beating England 32-6 at Twickenham last Saturday - marked the end of an international campaign that threatened to unravel after Robbie Deans' Wallabies won the first trans-Tasman battle 34-19 in Sydney on July 26.
Instead, the All Blacks avenged that defeat seven days later in Auckland, the first of nine consecutive victories that saw them named the International Rugby Board's team of the year on November 23.
Henry claimed the coaching award at the same function and leaves London after one last public engagement, representing the All Blacks with captain Richie McCaw when the 2011 World Cup pools are allocated inside Tourism New Zealand's giant rugby ball at Tower Bridge on Monday.
Henry's contract as All Blacks coach expires at the end of next season but on this year's form the 62-year-old is not yet ready to be pensioned off. Weary from a long night celebrating in the team hotel, Henry was in no mood to speculate whether he would be in charge when the All Blacks host the 2011 World Cup.
But there is little doubt he has been invigorated by his new look team's resurgence after successive losses to the Springboks and Australia. A second clean sweep of the Home Unions since 2005 was the crowning moment for Henry, who has looked more relaxed as it became apparent neither Scotland, Ireland, Wales or England were able to live with his team for 80 minutes -- or score a try for that matter.
"I'm just delighted about the way the guys have hung in there, kept their intensity, kept their level of performance, it's remarkable really," said Henry, whose record with the All Blacks now stands at 55 wins and eight losses since he replaced John Mitchell in 2004.
"People just worked hard, the team's knuckled down and got tight as a group of people. It's just a complete package."
It is also a radically reconfigured package after Henry, once he was controversially reappointed, had to compensate for the loss of a dozen or so of his World Cup squad, among them veterans like Anton Oliver, Carl Hayman, Jerry Collins, Chris Jack and Aaron Mauger.
Henry has always maintained how critical the experienced core of McCaw, Rodney So'oialo, Ali Williams, Dan Carter and Mils Muliaina were in achieving this season's success. From a coaching perspective 2008 has also been notable for the maturing of the Ma'a Nonu-Conrad Smith midfield and the rehabilitation of halfbacks Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu .
Anthony Boric, a surprise inclusion at the start of the season, has developed into the third-choice lock behind Williams and Brad Thorn while of the nine uncapped players blooded on the end-of-year tour, Kieran Read was the big mover, forcing his way into the test 22 as loose forward cover.
Although he will not necessarily be in charge in 2011, Henry was confident the nucleus of the next World Cup squad was already in place. "I think we're in good shape. I'd imagine the core of those who played (against England) will still be here in 2011."
Meanwhile, assistant coach Wayne Smith also rededicated himself to the cause yesterday by confirming he would see out his two-year contract despite a lucrative offer from Welsh club Ospreys.
Smith said the All Blacks environment was simply too fulfilling to give up, adding that Henry's attitude this season had aided his decision. "He's been under a lot of duress as you can imagine and he's handled everything brilliantly since that World Cup exit," he said.
"He protected a lot of people after the World Cup, he took a lot on his own shoulders and he's learnt from the experience. One of the things I've learnt in this environment is that if you can say you're the problem, then you can be the solution. He's always been open to putting his hand up and saying `I'm the problem, we're the problem and that means we can fix it'."
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