ANDt 76, Sir Graham Henry says that the final whistle has been blown. One of the most decorated coaches in rugby history has hung up his tracksuit and headed off into the sunset in retirement on the idyllic island of Waiheke. His last hurrah was last Saturday’s Women’s World Cup final across the bay in Auckland, where, as a consultant to the Black Ferns, he signed off on another important win.
If it feels like the end of an era, it is. Henry coached the All Blacks to 88 wins in 103 Tests – his record against England was nine played, won nine – and led them to the World Cup title in 2011. He was World Coach of the Year five times and also coached Wales and the British & Irish Lions . If anyone is qualified to discuss the health – or otherwise – of modern rugby union, he is the man.
Which is why everyone should sit up and listen when he suggests the game has a growing problem. “Personally, I think the rolling sledgehammer got out of hand,” he says, taking a thoughtful sip of his mocha. “It becomes such an important part of the game that teams work to get penalties just so they can drive the five-yard line and score. It’s probably not a very attractive part of the game for the viewer.”
Henry has been involved in coaching at the highest level for 30 years – before that he coached in schools for two decades – and needs no reminding that rugby is a contact sport that can be approached in countless ways. His problem is that some parties start doing a little more and cause the neutral parties to lose interest. “Maybe in England the number of viewers takes care of itself because of the size of the population, but in this part of the world it doesn’t.
“They are struggling to get people to watch the games. I think mallet rolling is a negative part of the game from a point of view. It is very difficult for the defensive side to stop it. I think that’s a part of the game that we could look at and say, ‘Can we make this a bigger competition?’”
He’s also convinced that encouraging players to tackle lower-end games is key to the game’s future popularity, not just on a community level. “I would lower the height of the accessory below the sternum. This will free up the ball and there will be a lot more load, which will make the game better to watch. I think that the focus on the height of the intervention has already been a real positive.”
Henry’s perspective was sharpened by his time with the Black Ferns, who beat England 34-31 to retain the world title at Eden Park. “People have enjoyed the women’s game because it’s a bit slower and they can appreciate more what people are trying to achieve. Today’s men’s game is brutal, isn’t it? It’s so damn fast, you have so many big, strong athletes, and the field hasn’t gotten any bigger. People have actually said to me, ‘I’ve really enjoyed women’s games because I can see what’s going on.'” It also made him wonder if men take themselves too seriously.
“What I like about the Black Ferns is that they are so passionate about the game. Women’s rugby is a delight. The result is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all. It’s important that we maintain it and that it doesn’t become a job like it is for men.” His recent insights into gender psychology – “girls need to feel good to play and boys need to win to feel good” – also confirmed his view that he had made a few misjudgments early in his Test coaching career, not only when he was serious team talks that his players didn’t need.
Footage of the 70-year-old dancing with the Black Ferns in training – “No, it hasn’t improved my dance … mine has to be with the help of the wind” – is convincing evidence that good coaches can still learn new tricks. “Women are very self-critical. They knock themselves a lot and want to correct it. As a coach it became more of a job to build their confidence and be really positive. Maybe I should have learned that when I was training men.”
However, from now on, the outgoing guru will be watching big games such as Saturday’s Test at Twickenham mostly from afar. “I watched Wales play the All Blacks in Cardiff. I have so many fond memories of that place. It’s my second home and I really loved my time there.”
He also feels that the leading European teams are on the march. “The game in Europe has improved immensely. When I watched France last year, I thought they were bloody awful. Ireland? They are probably the most organized side in the world and they embarrassed our boys in July. They played damn good football and deservedly won.
“This could be one of the most competitive world championships. There are half a dozen sides that could be good in 2023. Ireland, France, England, New Zealand, South Africa… and I think Australia too. But Ireland were very impressive and I’m sure come the World Cup England will be knocking on the door.
“I guess, like any World Cup team, they will try to finalize their squad and develop some new strategies. Originality is important. You have great brains in the game these days, and they’re all thinking about how to get an edge. You can’t do what everyone else is doing. You have to think and maybe not show too much yet. But I think France is the favorite. They just need to play a bit more rugby together.” Henry may be leaving, but lifelong rugby coaches never completely switch off.