The reconstructing of Sir Graham Henry

05:09, Apr 15 2012
Graham Henry
MENTOR: All Black captain Richie McCaw shares a moment with coach Graham Henry as he sits, spent, in the changing sheds after winning the Rugby World Cup 2011 final.

It was not the final whistle, the hoisting of the trophy, the sight of paunchy Stephen Donald tugging down his skin-tight jersey and booting that penalty goal. It was not walking into the dressing room afterwards, nor the beers that night.

The two moments that linger for Graham Henry came some three days later.

The first was in a Wellington hotel, where his team ate and drank before their final victory parade, when he said: "It's all over. Thank you, you've been outstanding people". The other came the next day, when he was finally able to spend some time with his family, a Imoment delayed by over-zealous police who thwarted his plans to have the family join him on the Eden Park turf post-match. "That," he says, "was special."

Special, because four years earlier they had all found refuge together at a friend's house in Wales the morning after the All Blacks had been eliminated from the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

"That was probably the hardest – the most emotional, anyway – few hours we had ever spent as a family," he says.

He has, Henry admits, contemplated what life would be like if New Zealand had lost the World Cup final. Thanks to 2007, he already had a very good idea.

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"I've talked about it, but it's not a reality, so I don't worry about it," he says.

"Certainly, it's very fickle business, sport. We lost by two points in 2007 and I was the villain. We won by one point in 2011, and you are the hero ... quite frankly, if we had lost by a point in 2011, life would be a hell of a lot different, there is no doubt about that. But that's the risk you take when you put your head on the block and do these things. I don't think people who report on these things quite understand that." Pause. Stare. "Is that fair?"

Henry believes that his eight years coaching the All Blacks proved mentally tougher for his family than for him.

"They go through more difficult times than you, because they have no control over it, and you have. You're at the coalface, doing the job, and it dissipates the pressure; you are so involved in the process you don't worry too much about the result ... When you are not involved, you worry about it all the time, in the back of your mind. And it takes its toll, particularly when the media are giving you shit."

Henry reiterates an old claim that he didn't listen, read or watch anything after 2007 but, darkly, he mutters "I knew what was going on". As a result, he says: "I think you know the beast you are dealing with, and you are just pleased to be on the right side of the ledger and haven't left yourself open to be ripped apart by some of the media."

You can probably appreciate now why this is Graham Henry's first feature interview since the World Cup.

Would he still be in New Zealand had his team lost? "I don't know," he says, then gathers his thoughts. "It's not a reality ... we've got family here, we love New Zealand, we love living in New Zealand, so I wouldn't have thought we would be going anywhere."

So we know that his family found life with the All Blacks hard.

Given those pressures on his wife Raewyn, their three children and five grandchildren, you would imagine Henry would be telling me now about the long weekends at his Waiheke bach that have followed the world cup. But the opening 10 minutes of our conversation are consumed by his response to my patsy opener 'what are you doing now?'

Henry opens up his laptop to show me how busy he is; every day has multiple engagements. He's splitting his employment three ways: as a "mentor" to New Zealand's rugby coaches (he's been to the Blues, and says drily "you can see the difference I've made there"), as a mentor to Argentina's national coaches (although he promises he won't be seen in a Pumas jacket when they play the All Blacks) and as, well, a mentor for Sport New Zealand's emerging coaches from disciplines as diverse as yachting and cycling.

Oh, and he's also involved in a rugby coaching website ("the best rugby coaching website in the world, and I am a minor shareholder," he spruiks) and a Hong Kong import-export company. He's having his autobiography ghostwritten by veteran rugby writer Bob Howitt, "and I want to be proud of that", and gives "the odd speech here and there". All this, he tells me, is under the umbrella of his own company. I search Companies Office records, and see that, rather aptly, it's called Sixty Five Plus Limited. Henry will turn 66 in June.

Is Raewyn pleased that, at the very least, he's no longer coaching? "I am sure she is. But she is looking at me sideways, wondering what retirement means. Her definition of retirement differs to mine." Wry smile. "But after 42 years, we're still not communicating as well as we should."

Anyway, he's not saying he has finished with coaching, which he appears to view as some sort of Dorian Gray exercise. "Never is a long time, and I am only a young man," he says. "[but] probably not. I coached 140 test matches ... it is not all peaches and cream. But quite frankly, I loved it, I loved coaching and I loved the game, and it keeps you young. Ish. Until you look in the mirror."

As said earlier, this is probably Henry's first substantial interview since the world cup; one he's giving not through particular choice, but contractual obligation to the organisers of a dinner he's speaking at on Thursday.

So there are some negotiations; his opening gambit is suggesting a chat on the phone; mine an hour in person and a photoshoot; the compromise is 45 minutes and no photos. The stipulation around photos becomes understandable: Henry arrives with what appears to be the worst case of sunburn I've ever seen. Partway through, he stops talking, grins, and says he's "brushing his face off the table". At first, I assume he's over-indulged over Easter weekend, but Henry says: "No, I've not been on the piss" and explains he's being treated for a curable skin condition which makes his face peel.

But this, of course, is not the reason why everyone who wanders past us in the reception area of the Millennium Institute on Auckland's North Shore does a telegraphed double-take. A group of middle-aged blokes are meeting at the next table, and each one in turns slows on approach, and gawps.

Henry claims not to notice and also says the man on the street rarely approaches to ask about the world cup. The last time I interviewed him, some six months before the cup, he took a similar tack, and could offer only one tale of being bearded in the local supermarket in 2008 – by a man who wanted to tell him he should have been sacked.

He is, though, clearly still in much demand. He says he has been "astounded" by the volume of requests. "I find it hard to say no," he says, "but as you can appreciate, trying to balance the three jobs and make sure you give your pound of flesh to each is your major focus.

"Just trying to keep it all under control and balanced so I can do it, is a challenging situation. "I am on top of it at the moment, just, and I haven't got a secretary. I always had a secretary."

But actually he's even enjoying answering his own emails and phone calls. "I've got tonnes to do and I could be working 24 hours a day, but most of the things I do I really enjoy, because it is what I am interested in.

"The pressure is off. I don't have to win any more. I don't have to win on Saturday and that pressure is significant. When you are involved, you don't realise the significance of that pressure; not until you don't have to do it any more.

"A large number of people have said `gee, you are a much more relaxed person than you used to be', and I think perhaps if a large number of people are saying that, they must be right. But I didn't know I was under a lot of stress, if that makes any sense. I felt a bit under stress in the last 30 minutes of the Rugby World Cup final, but I didn't feel under pressure during the [rest of] the tournament."

He says his approach to dealing with that pressure was "to become self-aware; and I am a very slow learner, so it took me 100 years to get there", to prepare as thoroughly as possible, to exercise every day, and again, to ignore the media. "You don't listen to Deaker and company or watch TV. To do the job the best you can, you've got to control that environment. The only trouble is, some well-meaning people sometimes tell you what's going on, when you don't want to know what's going on."

This brings us back in the territory of grumpy old Graham, a facade I don't quite believe in, although he's not quite the twinkly-eyed grandfather either. Seeing his quotes in print don't quite convey the desert-dry deprecation with which they are delivered. But the presently screening Marmite advertisement, where Henry sits behind a desk declaiming of a national shortage, and his inflight safety briefing for Air New Zealand are, I suspect, a low-level guerrilla campaign to prove to the New Zealand public that he does have a sense of humour, deadened and hidden as it has been by that distrust of the media.

Of course, when I suggest the Marmite promo is Henry poking fun at himself, he fixes me with the headmaster's stare, and says: "Do you think I poked fun at myself? Ohhh. I'll try and stop laughing." Last time we met I noticed this remarkable ability to change the topic of conversation at a moment's notice to something he'd rather be discussing; usually, as I've found today, that means talking rugby, not Graham Henry. And having arrived right on time, precisely 44 minutes later, he cuts me off with a curt "we've probably got enough, haven't we?" Not enough, but probably more than most journos with a notebook and dictafone will ever get.

The TelstraClear Dinner with Sir Graham Henry and Richie McCaw, Thursday 19 April, TelstraClear Events Centre, Manukau. See Duco Events.

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