High time people realised that Henry, not the All Blacks, is the problem

September 18, 2009

In the mess that is New Zealand rugby at the moment, the one man who has avoided any criticism is the one who has caused all the problems with his outdated thinking - coach Graham Henry.

Looking at just one game - the fixture against South Africa in Hamilton which the All Blacks lost 29-32 - it is easy to see why Henry should move out unless the All Blacks want to exit the next World Cup at an early stage again.

Henry is making the same mistake that earlier coaches - John Hart and John Mitchell - made: regarding overall competence at the game as an indicator that a player can man any position.

In Hamilton, the Kiwis had to do without Luke McAlister and Conrad Smith, both out due to injury. What did Henry do? Did he call on the one person available - Isaia Toeava - who has had experience at number 13 during the period when the coach tried out nearly everyone in the country at that position?

No, he pushed Ma'a Nonu, who has settled down at second five-eighth, to 13. After a long period of being floated around, Nonu found a productive position at 12 - only to be moved.

Next, Henry brought in Stephen Donald, a competent understudy to Daniel Carter at first five-eighth, to be the new No 12. And if that isn't enough, he wanted the pair fo alternate between the two positions during the game.

It is important that all these experiments were carried out for a game that had to be won - and with a bonus point too - if the team wanted to stay in the running for the TriNations title. Wonderful. Just the stuff to concentrate the mind. You could see it in the way the All Blacks muffed up the basics.

Sure, Toeava does make some handling mistakes. But it would have been nothing compared to the errors which came about due to the grand plan to play both Carter and Donald.

Donald is a competent No 10. When Carter is fit, Donald should be on the bench and step in during the second half.

When players live in mortal fear of losing their places in the side because the coach has not tried out this combination or that, they are generally unable to concentrate on the basic aspects of the game. The All Blacks are now in this position.

Henry suffers from the delusion that every position is interchangeable. I'm surprised he hasn't yet tried to play Tony Woodcock, the best prop in New Zealand, as a winger yet - though the man does occasionally turn up on the wing to run the ball!.

With this obsession foremost in his mind, Henry misses the obvious. One change which should have been implemented for the Hamilton game was to bring in Cory Jane or Hosea Gear for Josevata Rokocoko; the Fijian has clearly been well below his best all this season.

Henry is repeating the mistakes that other coaches have made. In the 1999 World Cup semi-final, Hart was obsessed with the idea of playing Tana Umaga, Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen in the same team. With Jonah Lomu on one wing, he opted to put Cullen (a competent full-back) at centre, Umaga on the wing and Wilson (a better wing that Umaga) at fullback.

Wilson's fumbles under the high ball were one of the reasons the All Blacks lost that game 31-43 to France.

Mitchell did something similar in the 2003 World Cup semi-final. playing Leon MacDonald (a competent fullback who should have played off the bench) at centre. This was to replace an injured Tana Umaga who, by then, had established himself as a worthy successor to the great Frank Bunce.

MacDonald could not cover for the mercurial stand-off Carlos Spencer and the Kiwis lost 10-22 - while players like Carter and Nonu sat on the bench and watched. Either could have done a much better job at 13 than MacDonald.

What Henry does not realise is that he has one of the best lots of players in the world and that he should leave them to play. There are far too many structured plays and the players are unable to express their own flamboyance and ability on the field.

Henry's team changes for the forthcoming game against Australia mirror his confused thinking. Out from the scrum go Owen Franks, Isaac Ross and Jerome Kaino - all of whom have performed competently. In come Neemia Tialata (the prop who has had the most problems in the scrum), Adam Thomson and a new face, Tom Donelly.

The hooker who has been unable to throw straight for most of the season, Andrew Hore, retains his place.

Among the backs, Toeava comes in at 13, Nonu goes back to 12 and, in the one change forced by injury, Jane comes in for Sitiveni Sivivatu.

New Zealand may or may not win this game - that is up in the air. If Henry takes a step back and lets the 15 play their natural game, they will win.

At the last World Cup, the Kiwis made it to the quarter-finals. Fans watched amazed as the form back of the team - Aaron Mauger - sat in the stands. So did the form winger of the All Blacks, Doug Howlett. Why were they not played? Only Henry knows why.

It may not be irrelevant to mention that Mauger was the one player - in 2006 - to criticise the coaches for the constant fiddling with team selection. Or that Henry appears to have a blind spot where Sivivatu is concerned. A few days after the disastrous loss to France, Howlett expressed his frustration by getting drunk and smashing a few cars in a London car park.

Unless the All Blacks get a new coach, they may exit the next World Cup, in their own backyard, in the preliminary stage itself.