'Nah, you're chokers mate' - Wayne Smith reflects on his time as an All Blacks assistant coach
As always, Wayne Smith is thinking about others. The door hasn't even hit the departing All Blacks coaching genius on the backside yet, and here he is positively oozing enthusiasm over the opportunity for a rising young rugby mind about to hit career paydirt.
The next Wayne Smith isn't even in place yet, and the old one is rubbing his hands in anticipation at the prospect.
Amid the reflection and reminiscing of one of the great All Black careers coming to a close, the departing assistant coach understands too well the chance that is about to present for the next generation of his profession.
Smith has been that guy. He has taken those tentative early steps. He understands the potential journey that could be about to unfold.
The All Blacks assistant coach, and tactical genius, announced on Friday that the conclusion of the Rugby Championship would end his 20-year association with the team he treasures above all others. He will mentor his successor through the four-nation competition, then step aside and allow the new rose to bloom.
"I'm convinced that this is right for me and my family, but also it's going to be good for the All Blacks," says the now 60-year-old who played five years (17 tests) and coached 15 with New Zealand's iconic rugby side.
"We've been together a long time this management team, and we've probably lost a generation of coaches out of the country. There's another young generation coming through who are outstanding.
"This will give someone else an opportunity to come in, and be fresh to the environment. They'll change a few things, and they'll keep some things going, but whatever happens it will be exhilarating."
New Zealand, without doubt, produces the finest rugby coaching minds on the planet, but the road to the All Blacks is a long and winding one that often bypasses the destination.
Adds Smith: "There are clear pathways but they're not easy to get on. This will ignite some people and provide a real opportunity. I think it will be good for the All Blacks."
Smith is asked about the legacy he leaves as he finally gets set to step away from his beloved All Blacks. His answer, really, says it all.
"If I look back on my playing days I was always pretty pragmatic. I loved the game but I knew I wasn't going to be a great. I realised early it doesn't stop you being part of a great team, and that you can contribute.
"That became my focus. I was 76kg, I was fit, I was quick, so I really honed those areas. I became a better kicker. I wanted to make sure my strengths were the best they could be, and then I could contribute something to the team."
That attitude never left him as he morphed from a wispy, fleet-footed five-eighth to a master coach with an eye for tactics and ability to talk his players' language.
"I guess if you're talking about legacy that would be it," continues Smith.
"You don't have to be charismatic or a great of the game to contribute to a great team. It's about team and as long as you give everything you've got, that's often enough."
Smith steps away from a coaching relationship with his long-time friend, and sparring partner, Steve Hansen, having forged the finest era the All Blacks have ever had. He concedes those twin World Cup triumphs "legitimise" a lot of what he has done, and then tells a funny story to illustrate the point.
"In that period from 2004-11 I think we won 89 games out of 103, but we were still rat-s... until we won the World Cup. It always annoyed me because week after week after week you saw these guys put everything on the line, you'd win Grand Slams or Lions series or Tri-Nations, but in a lot of people's eyes we were still no good because we hadn't won a World Cup.
"I remember in 2009 I went to the northern hemisphere to meet with Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter. I came into Heathrow and the guy on immigration obviously recognised me and he put his hands round his neck and started making choking noises.
"I said 'what's up mate?' and he goes 'you guys are chokers'. I told him I couldn't believe this, that I just wanted to come in for a couple of weeks to see a couple of players. 'Nah, you're chokers, mate'. It made a real impression on me."
Smith can talk all day and half the night about the great moments of his time with the All Blacks.
But he also understands the importance of the not so happy junctures.
Like when his short stint as head coach came to a premature end in 2001.
"Just the enormity of the job in those days was what struck me. It had become professional, but we still only had two coaches, me and Tony Gilbert, and you had all these other jobs and public pressures. For a young coach who cared deeply about it, it was bloody difficult.
"I'm a hard marker on myself, so when we lost a couple of tests against Australia we should have won, I measured myself pretty harshly, and I was right to do that."
So Smith went away, to Northampton, and "got back on the horse straight away. I wanted to show some resilience and a bit of grit and get back into it. It was good for me".
Soon enough he was back again, joining Graham Henry and Steve Hansen in an All Blacks coaching dream team. Though even then the hard yards weren't over.
After 2007's World Cup quarterfinal exit in Cardiff, Smith figured he might be all out of chances.
"It was a tough time. Steve and I were living in Christchurch and Robbie [Deans] was the favourite son and he had great credentials to take over. I didn't think we'd get the job again. After the interview Ted rang me and you couldn't say he was confident.
"It was tough down there. I definitely know who my mates are now ... the people that stuck by you. But it was character-building, and everything you do in the All Blacks is character-building. They are about toughness and grit and all the values those great old farmers brought to it in years past.
"Through your career you realise you're naked anyway, you might as well put everything you've got into it. You take the chances you need to take, try to get an edge, and don't hold anything back.
"We set about trying to change the game, the way the leadership was, the way the team was run. We didn't know where we were going but we knew where we wanted to get to. We took a lot of chances and it's turned out pretty good in the end."
You could say that.
- Sunday Star Times