Henry aims for World Cup redemption against France
Updated: October 17, 2011, 22:04
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Two matches against France will stand out as landmarks in the career of All Blacks rugby coach Graham Henry, marking would could be its highest and lowest points.
Henry became the All Blacks coach because of a World Cup failure, presided over a greater World Cup failure, retained his job in the face of opposition and now has the opportunity in Sunday's final against France to finish his 103-test coaching career with a World Cup title.
A win over France on Sunday would provide a neatly scripted ending to Henry's seven-year career, tying together the threads of a complex story in a manner the man himself may silently enjoy.
"It is career-defining I'm afraid,'' Henry said. "Even though there are a lot of things I am very proud of, this is where we put the icing on the cake.''
The ending isn't yet certain. New Zealand still has to beat France, and France twice previously has ended All Blacks' World Cup campaigns with upset wins in knockout rounds. Henry was coach of a team that suffered the worst of those defeats and he struck a note of caution after the All Blacks' semifinal win over Australia on the weekend.
But after beating No. 2-ranked Australia 20-6 and overcoming the greatest perceived obstacle to World Cup victory, the All Blacks have a momentum which the fractured French team seems unlikely to resist.
As the strands of Henry's career come together near the end of this World Cup there may be closure for the coach and his country. A particularly fraught rivalry with Australia and its New Zealand-born coach Robbie Deans was one of those threads and was successfully tied off Sunday.
Henry and Deans were rivals for the All Blacks coaching job when it was opened to applications after the quarterfinal loss to France in 2007. Against almost all expectations Henry and co-coaches Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen were reappointed and Deans rejected, despite his stellar record in Super rugby as the coach of the seven-time champion Canterbury Crusaders.
The appointment polarized New Zealanders and Henry has lacked their full support, their mandate over the past four years. The former high school principal has a poor public image, a mordant sense of humor and a perceived arrogance, which has left him in hard times without a cushion of popularity.
Rejected by New Zealand, Deans was almost immediately snapped up by Australia, planting the seeds of a perceived personal rivalry which has colored matches between the All Blacks and Wallabies over the past four years.
In guiding the All Blacks to a win over the Wallabies on Sunday, Henry may have finally closed that chapter of his career. He has admitted having no confidence of beating Deans to the All Blacks job in 2007: no previous New Zealand coach had been reappointed after a World Cup failure. Henry said he only reapplied for his job because the players pressed him to.
The players "wanted me,'' Henry told the New Zealand Herald recently. "I have answered this many times before and people seem to forget the answer. In this job, I put huge demands on them to front and do the business and that is part of the requirement.
"I had a situation where I either could front or run away and I could not do that because I expected them to front every week in test matches. That's why I stood. I didn't think I would get the job.
"When I reapplied in 2007, I thought they would appoint Robbie, and even in the interview I thought Robbie would get appointed. It was not about me, it was about me living by the principles we had set in the All Black team.''
Henry's coaching career has been one of well-charted highs and lows. He began at a first-class level as the coach of Auckland province from 1992 to 1997, winning New Zealand's national championship four times and the Ranfurly Shield twice.
He coached the Auckland Blues for three years, winning the Super 12 tournament in 1996 and 1997 and reaching the final in 1998.
Henry's international career began in 1998 when he was recruited to coach Wales, which was at a low and looking beyond its own borders for a national coach. When he guided it to wins over England and South Africa he was hailed as "the Great Redeemer'' and in 2001 became the first non-Briton or Irishman to coach the British and Irish Lions.
Henry's Lions won the first test of a three-test series against Australia but lost the next two tests on a tour which ended with acrimony between the coach and some players. His time with Wales also ended on a low note in 2002 and he returned to New Zealand, handing over the Welsh coaching position to his current assistant Steve Hansen.
Henry was appointed All Blacks coach in 2004, winning his opening match against then world champions England and his first six tests. He coached New Zealand to a series victory over the Lions in 2005 and a Grand Slam in Britain at the end of that season, the first of three Grand Slams the All Blacks have achieved under Henry.
Yet, the 2007 loss to France still seemed likely to become the defining result of Henry's career. He has the chance on Sunday if not to expunge that loss, at least to alter its emphasis. He will be remembered far more for a World Cup victory than a World Cup defeat.
Coaching the All Blacks "is a real privilege and in saying that I have done the hard yards and put the time in as well,'' Henry told the New Zealand Herald. "It is special and I am very proud of it.
"It is a rollercoaster and I have been very lucky that the rollercoaster hasn't been too bad. I've only gone through that terrible pain of defeat 15 times out of a hundred.
"But those times are significant, and particularly 2007.''