Rewind to 2002
Graham Henry's downfall as Wales coach
Huw Richards
March 12, 2015
Ireland's 54-10 victory in 2002 brought about the departure of Graham Henry © Getty Images

Wales v Ireland has come up in the world since the days when it was the equivalent of what Scotland v Italy has since become, a perennial settler of wooden spoons with the duo filling the bottom two places seven times in eight seasons between 1989 and 1996.

Nowadays it is likelier, as it will be on Saturday, to be a significant and demanding staging post on the way to championships, Triple Crowns and Grand Slams - even if the likeliest eventual beneficiary of a Welsh win this weekend is probably England.

But England should not hold their breath in hoping for propitious tidings from Cardiff. What has not changed is that this is consistently the most perverse rivalry in test rugby, and possibly the whole of international sport, the away banker.

Paul O''Connell celebrates his try, Ireland v Wales, Six Nations, Lansdowne Road, 3 February, 2002
Paul O'Connell celebrates his try at Lansdowne Road on February 3, 2002 © Getty Images

Wales have beaten Ireland twice on Welsh soil since 1983 - once (2005) to clinch and Grand Slam and the other (2011) following a blatantly illegal try. Ireland have regained an edge in recent years in Dublin, winning five out of the last seven Six Nations clashes, but Wales still lead 9-7 in championship matches there since 1984. Ireland won more matches (four out of four) in Cardiff than they did in Dublin (two out of 20) during the 1990s, and added the one Wales hosted at Wembley in 1999 as well.

So the matches which have bucked the trend really stand out, and none more than Ireland's 54-10 victory in 2002, a result which brought something inconceivable in Wales a couple of years earlier - the departure of Graham Henry as coach.

It was after all not so long since the Welsh Rugby Union had run a marketing campaign billing Henry as the 'Great Redeemer'; that there had been massive queues for signing sessions for his autobiography; that Clive Rowlands had joked that if Henry and Gareth Edwards had walked down opposite sides of the street in Cardiff people would have crossed the road to shake hands with the New Zealander.

No New Zealander is unaccustomed to rugby enthusiasm, but the extent of it in Wales, and the desperation for success after a grim decade culminating in a 51-0 defeat by France at Wembley and a 96-13 loss to South Africa in Pretoria in the matches immediately before his appointment, clearly surprised him.

That desperation had reached the point of seeking King Arthur-like saviours from a decline whose solution was beyond the means of any individual, however gifted. Henry followed on from returning rugby league hero Jonathan Davies, and caught the same mood.

Wales coach Graham Henry poses at the Millennium Stadium ahead of the Rugby World Cup opener, September 28, 1999
Henry poses at the Millennium Stadium ahead of the Rugby World Cup opener in 1999 © Getty Images

There was delight when the South Africans, who had come within a last-minute knock-on of reaching a century of points in Pretoria, were pushed all the way before winning 28-20 at Wembley in Henry's first match.

There was a somewhat chastening start to the last ever Five Nations with a vapid display in Edinburgh followed by a Wembley loss at home to the Irish, but memorable wins in Paris and at Wembley against England, defeating the then-dominant powers who had both run up half-centuries against Wales in the 1998 championship, restored the mood.

When Henry, who had been a first-class cricketer, strolled around the boundary at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff during the World Cup match that summer between New Zealand and Australia there was spectator excitement to match anything on a day when his compatriots memorably downed the eventual champions. And that was before two wins in Argentina and a run-up to the World Cup which incorporated Wales' first ever victory over South Africa and another defeat of the French.

Anyone listening to the radio in Cardiff the morning of the World Cup opener against Argentina was treated to a rousing pastiche, in eye-wateringly Kaerdiffian tones, of Lou Bega's 'Mambo No.5', extolling in turn the names of Wales' top players and concluding with the incantation "a little bit of Henry, he's the king".

It was the World Cup which ended the honeymoon. A Samoan team packed with players who knew Henry from his brilliant career with Auckland comprehensively unstitched Wales at the Millennium, and a limp quarter-final exit against Australia followed.

It would always have been tough to sustain the promise of that honeymoon period. Both the playing resources and the confidence of Welsh rugby remained fragile and the WRU had embarked on the long period in which funding the Millennium Stadium would take priority over all other considerations.

Henry had perhaps not helped himself. He had clearly seen the WRU coming when they negotiated his contract - not hard when they were publicly proclaiming their intention to make him the best-paid coach - obtaining the then-extraordinary sum of £250,000 per year.

And he had cashed in his fame with high charges for personal appearances. As Robert Jones pointed out about one appearance at a benefit event for Swansea veteran Paul Arnold: "Paul undoubtedly made more money because Henry was there, but Henry also made more money from it than Paul did. And wasn't this the sort of event that a national coach should perhaps be attending as part of his duties?"

Relations with the media deteriorated, with Henry's persistent lateness for scheduled press conferences a particular grievance.

And Henry also differed from Wales' current New Zealand coach Warren Gatland in one crucial respect. Gatland came to the job from a decade of experience and achievement in European rugby. Henry had never previously coached outside the southern hemisphere, and perhaps never fully adjusted. It would have been understandable had early success and accompanying acclaim suggested that he had little to learn.

And where Gatland's team has excelled in competition and struggled in other internationals, Henry was the other way round. His final record for Wales would be 22 wins, a draw and 13 defeats, a success rate of 62.5%. But in competition, the Five/Six Nations and the World Cup, it was a straight 50-50, nine wins, a draw and nine defeats.

British and Irish Lions head coach Graham Henry reflects on a narrow series defeat following the Lions' 29-23 loss to the Wallabies in the third and final test. Australia v British and Irish Lions, Third Test, Telstra Stadium, July 14 2001.
Henry oversaw a narrow 2001 series defeat following the Lions' 29-23 loss to Australia in the third and final test © Getty Images

Both also of course coached the Lions in Australia, and the backwash from Henry's experience in 2001 doubtless informed what happened with Gatland in 2013. Henry did not take a sabbatical in the previous Six Nations campaign and, given a party weighted with the talents of the players who would take England to the World Cup two years later, marginalised most of the 10 Welshmen in the party to a disregarded and resentful midweek squad, with lasting consequences for his relations with several of them.

Wales did not return to the miseries of the 1990s, but remained resolutely mediocre in Six Nations competition. There was also a dullness in their play exemplified by the choice of centres like Gareth Thomas and Dafydd James on the wing in preference to Shane Williams - capped by Henry, but then discarded - and the mishandling of the fragile but brilliantly creative Arwel Thomas.

The autumn of 2001 seriously weakened Henry's position. He was unlucky that the Ireland match in that year's Six Nations had been postponed to October because of foot and mouth, but even so losing 36-6 at the Millennium came as a serious shock.

Then came Iestyn Harris, the latest model in King Arthurs, signed from a brilliant rugby league career with Warrington. It has never been clear whether Henry felt he could not resist the pleas of the WRU marketing men that he play Harris, whose entire senior union experience after a league-playing Lancashire upbringing amounted to 200 minutes, or that it was his own decision. Either way it was a reckless misuse of a valuable talent, plunging Harris into a situation for which he was hopelessly unprepared. Wales lost 30-16.

The opening Six Nations day in Dublin was simple slaughter. Ireland were rapidly ahead through a Geordan Murphy try, added another from a debutant lock called Paul O'Connell, of whom more would be heard later and led 24-3 at half-time. The 54-10 margin and Ireland's six tries to one - including two from Murphy and another debutant score from Keith Gleeson - in no way exaggerated their superiority.

In less than four months Henry had presided, either side of the Harris debacle, over what remain the two heaviest defeats suffered by either side in the 133-year history of the fixture. Both he and his employers had clearly had enough. The appointment of Steve Hansen as his assistant was clearly intended to provide a line of succession, but with the idea that it happen in two years rather than the two months Hansen served before taking on the job.

It was a disappointing ending, but not an altogether unhappy one. Henry was cheered when his distinctive features, sat in the crowd and wearing a Wales scarf, were flashed up on to the Millennium Stadium screen during the match against France a month later. And when Wales won their first Grand Slam in 27 years in 2005 Paul Rees, among the best and most perceptive of current rugby writers, argued that the triumph resembled a house in which "Mike Ruddock put a roof on foundations put in by Henry and walls built by Hansen".

Henry, of course, went on in time to the job he always truly coveted, with the All Blacks. And that didn't turn out too badly in the end, did it?

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