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Graham Henry admits he's struggling to button his lip in his latest coaching assignment.
So used to being the "guv'nor", the 66-year-old is still coming to terms with his assistant's role in the top-heavy Blues coaching structure as they get set to open their season against the Hurricanes in Wellington tomorrow.
It's been a summer of transition for Henry, the All Blacks coach who brought the World Cup back to New Zealand.
"The only time I've been an assistant coach in 40 years of coaching was in 2002-03 when I came back from Wales," Henry said of hooking up with Peter Sloane back then as technical director and helping the Blues land their third title.
Now he's got the same role in a coaching team headed by Sir John Kirwan.
"I've found that more difficult than what I thought I would. I've found it hard to shut my face at times. I'm getting better at that. But I have to bite my lip . . . ‘shut up Graham, shut up Ted', I keep telling myself."
Henry is very much aware that this is Kirwan's time and it is his fellow knight who will largely be held responsible for the demanding job of rebuilding the once proud franchise.
So autocratic in his early days with the whistle and clipboard, Henry surrounded himself with heavyweight assistants at the All Blacks and developed a coaching by committee style. But ultimately, the buck stopped with him.
Now Henry's experience and knowledge, as well as his aura, are invaluable to the new breed of coaches and players. But in his wide brief as technical director with a focus on defence, he's learning about choosing his moments.
"Because it's JK's team and he's doing a great job. The guys are enjoying their environment and they are learning," Henry said, adding he was hugely impressed by Kirwan's passion for the squad and the region and the high energy he was bringing to the job.
Kirwan oozed positives and that was a valuable commodity in such a raw squad.
Having had his arm twisted to join the setup late last year, Henry was also feeling invigorated by what he's experienced over the last couple of months.
The only hiccup has been arthroscopic ligament surgery to his knee - wear and tear from all those years - that leaves him a bit ginger after "a couple of hours on your feet". But nothing can weary his spirit.
"I've been loving it. It's a bloody good challenge. I always enjoy rugby coaching. I enjoy the young guys. It's just been part of my life, a very enjoyable part and it's just continuing . . . in a minor role."
So used to working with the cream of the crop, Henry has had to adjust his sights.
"It's a major change. We've got a big group of guys and a lot of them are very inexperienced at this level. But they are enthusiastic, they are keen and they want to learn. And when you have got guys that want to learn, and are very coachable, it makes life very good.
"It's a learning environment. They are getting better and they are enjoying it, that's the foundation to go on."
It's an adjustment of expectations, too. Asked where the Blues started in the New Zealand conference, Henry didn't hesitate: "Fifth."
He'll back his team to make an impact but he can't remember a tougher time to try to do that.
"I think New Zealand rugby is probably as strong as I've ever seen it if you look at the Highlanders, the Crusaders, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs and even the Blues . . . I can't remember - and I've been involved from the start - the sides being so strong across the board.
"That's brilliant for New Zealand rugby. It's going to be highly competitive. That's probably a bit of a disadvantage for the New Zealand franchises because they play each other twice. It's obviously going to affect the hierarchy at the finish when the final results come through. But it's good for the development of our players.
"They are the strongest player rosters I can remember. There have been the Crusaders and Blues, the Crusaders and Hurricanes, the Chiefs of late . . . but to have all of our teams with the playing strength they have got is phenomenal."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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