World Cup redemption beckons for All Blacks coach Henry

New Zealand coach Graham Henry's dry sense of humour bubbled to the surface on Friday when he named his...

All Blacks coach Graham Henry. Picture: Taurai Maduna/Eyewitness News

New Zealand coach Graham Henry's dry sense of humour bubbled to the surface on Friday when he named his side for the rugby World Cup final, possibly his final test in charge of the All Blacks.

The 65-year-old greeted the packed media conference with "good morning", to which journalists responded in kind, save for one who replied "present" in a nod to Henry's past career as a secondary school headmaster.

"Very good," a laughing Henry replied, his face creasing into a smile that has been mostly present throughout his 102 matches in charge since 2004.

Henry, nicknamed 'Ted', has dodged questions on whether he will step down on Monday or put his name forward for another tilt at the All Blacks job, but Sunday's final will ultimately determine his legacy in the pantheon of New Zealand rugby.

If his players beat France and win the Webb Ellis trophy to end a 24-year-drought since the All Blacks' sole triumph in the inaugural tournament, he will be elevated among the likes of All Blacks coaching greats Fred Allen and Brian Lochore.

Defeat, however, would cast an indelible stain on Henry's record, despite the All Blacks' astonishing achievement under his charge.

Henry and his assistant coaches, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, have steered the All Blacks to 87 wins from their 102 tests, clinched five Tri-Nations titles, swept the 2005 British and Irish Lions and completed three grand slam tours in 2005, 2008 and 2010.

The All Blacks, employing an attacking style of rugby that has thrilled crowds from Edinburgh to Dunedin, now boast an all-time winning record in tests of more than 75 percent, the best in professional sport, according to the New Zealand Rugby Union.

CAREER OVER?

Despite Henry's success, his side's loss in the quarter-finals to France at the 2007 World Cup looked to have ended his coaching tenure.

The NZRU had a track record of not re-appointing their failed World Cup coaches and invited new candidates. Henry re-applied, but only after being prompted, he said in late 2007.

Henry and his assistants were kept on for another two years in a decision that split the rugby-mad country, many of whom had backed Robbie Deans to take over after an impressive Super rugby record with the Canterbury Crusaders.

Deans, instead, went to Australia to coach the Wallabies who were demolished 20-6 by Henry's All Blacks in their semi-final last Sunday.

Henry, who enjoyed success coaching Super rugby's Auckland Blues before stints at Wales in 1998 and the Lions in 2001, said victory on Sunday would be the highlight of his career and also that of the players he had brought through.

"I've been with a lot of these guys for a long time and although they may be ranked the leading team in the world, they've never been world champions," he said.

"It would be just marvellous to have that title because they've had every other title that's going in rugby apart from this one.

"So for Richie (McCaw) and the boys I think that would be fabulous.

"You don't deserve that title until you do the job. I think they're good enough and that would be the icing on the cake."

RECALCITRANT SCHOOLBOYS

Henry's job is considered the second-most scrutinised after that of the country's Prime Minister.

At times, the pressure has got to Henry and his sense of humour deserted him, none more so after test losses when his face turns to thunder and his responses to media questions become curt, as if addressing a group of recalcitrant schoolboys caught smoking behind the bike-sheds.

His players, however, say his public persona differs from their own experience, and speak of a man whose concern for his troops extends well beyond the team environment.

"He's been a very special man on and off the field," hooker Keven Mealamu said on Friday. "I've learnt a lot off him as a player and I think he's quite a genuine man off the field as well.

"He really cares about the boys so I know the boys will be wanting to put on a good performance for him."