New Zealand Rugby
Continuity, peer pressure, laughter and raffles - the secrets to the All Blacks' success
November 27, 2011
Henry believes leading international players look beyond their pay packet when making career choices © Getty Images
Laughter is often said to be the best medicine and according to former All Blacks head coach Graham Henry, it may well be the best option for and England side that has been reduced to being the butt of many jokes in the wake of a troubled Rugby World Cup campaign.
England's assault on the sport's biggest prize was blighted by headline-grabbing off-field incidents and their attempts to draw a line under the sorry saga have been savaged thanks to a series of damaging leaks from the official review into their scandal-ridden sojourn to New Zealand.
The fallout highlighted an apparent divide between senior players and rising stars and suggested financial greed rather international honour was the primary motivating factor for some of the squad. Some of the reporting may have bordered on sensationalism but it cannot be denied that a lack of professionalism from the players to the upper echelons of the Rugby Football Union contributed to their quarter-final exit to France.
The All Blacks were not immune to the odd wobble on the way to their first World Cup crown in 24 years but crucially they survived those tests and arguably thrived - all in the full glare of an expectant home nation. So what was their secret, if it was such a thing, and where can England learn as they plot their course back to respectability?
According to Henry, one of the main reasons behind his side's success was the fact that the players had taken ownership of the team. "The worst thing the players within the All Blacks can do is upset the rest of the boys," Henry explained as he re-lived Cory Jane and Israel Dagg's decision to escape the team hotel for a drinking session during the tournament. "If they upset me then I might bark at them but if they upset [Richie] McCaw, [Dan] Carter, [Brad] Thorn, [Keven] Mealamu, [Conrad] Smith and [Mils] Muliaina then they have to go in front of those guys and explain what they have done.
"Then they are told what the situation is - that you are stuffing up our culture and environment. That is difficult for them and they don't want to have to face that so controlling your own environment and self-policing is crucial.
"Kids hate upsetting their peers," Henry continued, "and our kids, who may be a bit older, are just the same. So when Cory Jane and Israel Dagg made a bad decision, which wasn't major, it was blown out of all proportion by the media, they had to front those guys and then apologise to the rest of the squad. Then they go and play the best game of their lives on the Saturday because they wanted to impress their mates. So the best thing you can do is have a self-policing environment, run by the team."
Should they step out of line they will find themselves answering to team manager Darren Shand. Primarily "a logistics man", Henry labels him as a "no-fuss Charlie" due to his role in laying down the law when it comes to the off-field discipline. Such is his reputation that a similar role may well emerge in the on-going England shake-up. "We plan campaigns and he is part of that group," explained Henry. "We always want to improve the culture, to improve the environment, to improve on what we have done in the past and we are intent on making things better. We want to learn from our mistakes, because we are not always squeaky clean, and he always pushes those things in front of us to make sure we are aware."
So tight is the bond between the squad that saying goodbye is not easy - even when injury and tournament rules demand you part company. "When Dan [Carter] ripped his abductor muscle off the bone I saw it happen and immediately thought this can't be good," said Henry of that fateful day when the world's best fly-half saw his World Cup dream turn into a nightmare. "Daniel was obviously hurting but he did that in private and when he was with the group he was just his normal self which speaks volumes of his character.
"In the All Blacks we have what we call individual operating units and he continued to lead his unit. He would talk to Aaron [Cruden] and Steve [Donald] a lot in training. He is also part of our leadership group and secretary of our 'rugby club' where we all dress in our club gear once a week and he runs the raffles. It's nothing really but we laugh a lot which is very important. The more you laugh the more the pressure decreases and the performance increases."
Carter was just the first of three Kiwi playmakers to be struck down by injury on a rollercoaster of ride that ended with Stephen Donald being plucked from a fishing trip to eventually set the seal on the All Blacks' long-awaited victory. "He had been white baiting up a Waikato river and I rang him to bring him into the side when Colin Slade fell over," recalled Henry. "I said, 'Do you want to play for the All Blacks?' and he said 'Sure'. I then asked 'How much white bait you got?' 'Five pounds' he answered. 'For three pounds of whitebait you are in,' I said. That sort of banter shows you the kind of guy he is. And he came on and did the business."
Donald showed little sign of the obvious pressure as he slotted what proved to be a World Cup-clinching penalty against France and Henry insists that the rest of a well-prepared squad were equally untroubled by the prospect of letting down 'a stadium of four million'.
"They [the players] are constantly involved in the process of self-improvement and when you're doing that you are not worried about the game, you are just doing the job. If you have got a map of how to do that and you've prepared all week, by the time you get to Saturday you're ready to go. But if you set off at the beginning of the week and you haven't got a map then you have got a problem because all you do is worry about the result."
Henry had more concern about the All Blacks' extended family. "It is easier for us, we are at the coal face," he explained. "It's the people who are close to us who can't control that - the wives and girlfriends and mothers - like mine who is 95 and still worries about her baby boy!"
On a more serious note, Henry has pinpointed the need for continuity in any organisation plotting success - a word of warning perhaps to the Rugby Football Union that has already lost a manager in Martin Johnson and attack coach in the form of Brian Smith. "New Zealand rugby has been bad in the past where the coach and his people have been given the chop after four years before another group is put in charge," explained Henry who bucked the trend by being re-appointed following New Zealand's stunning exit at the hands of France at the 2007 World Cup.
"How do you learn from that? How do you progress from that?" he asked having endorsed Steve Hansen's bid to step up from assistant coach to take charge of the All Blacks from next year. "I think you need to make sure in your planning that you have a contingency and that there are people who are constantly in that environment."
Henry has certainly learnt a thing or two during his 140 Test match career and we can expect a detailed account in print in the near future that will confirm some of his fondest memories stem from an often turbulent spell as Wales coach.
"The 2007 World Cup was one that sticks in your mind but the All Blacks have been largely successful in the last eight years - we have won 88 out of 103 and won a lot of Championships - and winning the World Cup has been huge. But some of the greatest Tests I have been involved with were those with Wales. I had some special times there, and some pretty hard times too," said Henry of his four-year spell in the principality between 1998 and 2002. "I've got 14 support staff and I had six when I was with Wales. It makes a difference, you had to do it all yourself."
Having stepped down from Test match rugby's front line, and turned down overtures from the RFU, after 37 straight years of coaching at all levels of the game, Henry will now happily step into one of those supporting roles and does so with a word of advice for eventually takes England's reins. "If I was coaching a team in 2012, I would try and bring the knowledge of that group together so they all felt involved."
Graham Henry was taking part in an exclusive coaches insight Q&A session at Rosslyn Park RFC made possible by The Rugby Site. Involving some of the biggest names in world rugby, The Rugby Site offers high quality rugby coaching videos and online forums to a global rugby community. Get inside the game now at www.therugbysite.com
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.