Henry and Hansen hope to fill in blank page

SINCE Graham Henry took over the All Blacks in 2004, they have an 85% winning record in tests.

It is an extraordinary record, possibly unparalleled in professional sports over the same period and compares extremely well with the All Blacks’ historical 75% winning ratio.

But here’s the rub: if Graham Henry loses a certain match tomorrow, his tenure will be defined by failure. He will be remembered as the coach who had his hand at the tiller for not one, but two failed World Cup campaigns.

“It is career defining, I’m afraid,” Henry said recently. “Even though there are a lot of things I am very proud of, this is whether we put the icing on the cake.”

Henry, a sometimes acerbic man who his assistant Steve Hansen last year described as having an upside-down smile, does have plenty to be proud about.

His side has never relinquished the Bledisloe Cup, the annual series against Australia. New Zealand has won five of eight Tri-Nations under his charge; he’s won three Grand Slams in three attempts; he’s completed a 3-0 series whitewash against the British & Irish Lions.

It’s an incredible resume… with a big blank page where the Webb Ellis Cup should be.

Win or lose, Henry will almost certainly ride off into the sunset. He will no doubt reappear with a fancy New Zealand Rugby Union overseeing title, but he won’t be All Blacks’ coach any more.

That’s why winning the final is just as important to his assistant Steve Hansen, the man who followed him into the Wales roles and who desperately wants to follow him into the head-coach position here.

Hansen is not a universally popular man in New Zealand. Prone to sneering dismissals of questions he has no time for, Hansen has hired a PR consultant to improve his prickly image.

Like his off-field extreme makeover, his on-field stocks are rising.

His responsibility is the forwards and they are running like a well-oiled machine, best demonstrated by their destruction of Australia’s eight in the semi-final.

It’s a simple equation for Hansen: if the All Blacks beat France, the succession plan will kick in; if they lose he’ll have to take his chances in an open appointment process.

Theoretically, he should have little to worry about. The All Blacks should win comfortably. Man for man they are better in most positions and their semi-final form is light years ahead of where the French were against the Welsh.

Ignore the nationality of this author and think logically about the match. Try to find an area of the game where the French are better than the All Blacks? You could make an argument that their lineout might be superior, but it is tenuous at best. Their wings might be more fleet of foot, but there is more to wing play in modern rugby than being able to run a sub-11s 100m.

New Zealand has a talented but inexperienced out-half in Aaron Cruden, but then again, France have a No 9 wearing No 10, so there’s no real advantage for Les Bleus.

No, when you apply clear thinking and pure logic, the All Blacks win and they win easily. And that’s what’s making Henry’s last few nights as All Blacks’ coach sleepless ones.

France are beyond logic. They should never have beaten the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1999, or at Cardiff, shockingly, in 2007. Jean-Pierre Rives’ team had no chance of beating New Zealand at Eden Park on Bastille Day, 1979, but they did.

Even in this tournament they were virtually finished before they started. Within days, reports were emerging that there had been an epic fall-out between the players and coach Marc Lievremont.

New Zealand hammered France and, when they lost their second game of pool play to the tiny island kingdom of Tonga, they refused Lievremont’s offer of a few beers and a chat to thrash things out. Unless it’s the most elaborate smokescreen in sports history, the players and coach really don’t get on, a point emphasised when Lievremont called them “spoilt brats” when they hit town after their fortunate semi-final win.

They probably didn’t deserve to escape from Pool A, they certainly didn’t deserve to go all the way to the final, but here they are, 80 minutes away from the most improbable shot at glory.

To call the French enigmatic is to fall back on a well-worn cliché, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

They have no chance of winning this World Cup, but they just might.

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