New Zealand coach Graham Henry can rest easy as he leaves his post after leading the All Blacks to a World Cup final win.
Such is the now career-defining importance of the World Cup, which New Zealand won for only the second time since the inaugural 1987 edition when they beat France 8-7 in a nerve-wracking encounter at Eden Park here on Sunday.
The intervening years were torturous ones for the All Blacks: defeat in the 1995 final, semi-final losses in 1999 and 2003 and the shattering quarter-final exit to France on Henry’s watch at the last, 2007, tournament.
Henry feared he would not be back as coach in the upheaval that followed, fully expecting Kiwi rival Robbie Deans to get the job.
Yet he was given another chance and Sunday saw that decision vindicated.
Former headmaster Henry celebrated 100 Tests as All Blacks coach during this World Cup and in 103 Tests has the remarkable success rate of 85 percent with 88 wins and just 15 losses.
But Henry, the only foreign coach of the British and Irish Lions in 2001, known as the ‘Great Redeemer’ in his 1998-2002 spell in charge of Wales, has now got the one win he prized above all others.
“Personally, you have got some peace,” said the 65-year-old Henry, now set to step down after following seven years as head coach. “It’s a great feeling.
“This thing was about winning.
“We have been through a lot together and a lot of the guys played in the last World Cup and fell at the quarter-final and to win this, there are not words for it quite frankly.
Henry said New Zealand were now a more resilient team than the one, which under his guidance and that of captain Richie McCaw, lost in the quarter-finals to France in Cardiff four years ago – New Zealand’s worst World Cup result.
“We are a much stronger side now than we were in 2007. The players are older, more self-reliant and they run this team, Richie and the senior players run this team,” he said.
“They’ve each taken ownership and they’ve been superb at it. They’re also learning and they’ve learned from this World Cup.
“That’s the beauty of continuity, that people continue to be involved rather than wholesale cleanouts and start all over again, how do you learn from that?,” said Henry, who face widespread calls to be sacked after the 2007 World Cup.
“Those situations are difficult but they are things you can learn from.”
Henry, speaking before the final, said he felt he owed it to his players to reapply to be coach in 2007.
“I had a situation where I either could front or run away and I could not do that (disappear) because I expected them (the players) to front every week in Test matches. That’s why I stood. I didn’t think I would get the job,” Henry recalled.
“When I reapplied in 2007, I thought they would appoint Robbie (Deans).”
Yet the New Zealand Rugby Union, who’d previously axed coaches who’d failed to win the World Cup, put their faith in Henry, voting 7-1 for him.
Deans headed to Australia to coach the Wallabies, beaten by Henry’s All Blacks in the semi-final.
Henry, renowned as a shrewd tactician, once said of his coaching style: “I am probably the big-picture person.
“I let the others coach the detail while I’m looking at the game plan in the sense of outplaying the opposition.
“It is a roller coaster and I have been very lucky the roller coaster hasn’t been too bad. I’ve only gone through that terrible pain of defeat 15 times out of a hundred.”