Graham Henry: ‘What I like about the Black Ferns is they’re so passionate about the game’

At 76, Sir Graham Henry says the final whistle has now sounded. One of the most decorated coaches in rugby history has hung up his tracksuit and is heading into the retirement sunset on the idyllic Waiheke Island. His last hurrah was last Saturday’s women’s World Cup final across the bay in Auckland where, as a consultant with the Black Ferns, he duly signed off with another momentous victory.

If it feels like the end of an era that is exactly what it is. Henry coached the All Blacks to 88 wins in 103 Tests – his record against England read played nine, won nine – and guided them to the 2011 World Cup title. He was World Coach of the Year five times and also coached Wales and the British & Irish Lions. If anyone is qualified to discuss the health – or otherwise – of modern rugby union he is very much the man.

Which is why everyone should sit up and listen when he suggests the game has an increasing problem. “I think the rolling maul has got out of hand, personally,” he says, taking a contemplative sip of his mocha. “It’s becoming such a significant part of the game that teams are working to get penalties just so they can drive a five metre lineout and score. That’s probably not a very appealing part of the game for the spectator.”

Henry has been involved in top-level coaching for 30 years – having coached in schools for two decades before that – and needs no reminding that rugby is a contact sport that can be approached in myriad ways. His issue is that some sides are starting to do little else and are causing neutrals to lose interest. “Perhaps in England the number of spectators looks after itself because of the size of the population but in this part of the world it doesn’t.

Richie McCaw and Graham Henry during the victory parade after New Zealand won the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Richie McCaw and Graham Henry during the victory parade after New Zealand won the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

“They’re struggling to get people along to watch the games. I think the rolling maul is a negative part of the game from a viewing point of view. It’s very hard for the defensive side to stop it. I think it’s a part of the game we could look at and say, ‘Can we make this a greater contest?’”

It is also his belief that encouraging players to tackle slightly lower is crucial to the game’s future popularity, not least at community level. “I would drop the tackle height below the sternum. It will free up the ball and there’ll be a lot more offloads, which will make it a better game to watch. I think the focus on tackle height has already been a real positive.”

Henry’s perspective has been sharpened by his time with the Black Ferns, who beat England 34-31 to retain the world title at Eden Park. “People have enjoyed the women’s game because it’s a bit slower and they can appreciate more what people are trying to achieve. The men’s game today is brutal, isn’t it? It’s so bloody quick, you’ve got so many big, strong athletes and the field hasn’t got any bigger. People have actually said to me, ‘I’ve really enjoyed the women’s games because I can see what’s going on.’” It has also made him wonder if the men are taking themselves too seriously.

“What I like about the Black Ferns is that they’re so passionate about the game. Women’s rugby is about enjoyment. The result is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It’s important we maintain that and don’t make it like the men where it becomes a job.” His recent insights into gender psychology – “the girls need to feel good to play and the boys need to win to feel good” – has also confirmed his view that he made a few misjudgments early in his Test coaching career, not least in delivering earnest team talks that his players did not need.

Graham Henry oversees an All Blacks training session in 2005 in Christchurch
Graham Henry oversees an All Blacks training session in 2005. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Footage of the septuagenarian dancing with the Black Ferns at training – “No, it hasn’t improved my dancing … mine has to be wind assisted” – is conclusive proof that good coaches can still learn new tricks. “Women are very self-critical. They knock themselves a lot and they want to get it right. As a coach it became more of a job of building their confidence and being really positive. Perhaps I should have learned that when I was coaching the men.”

From now on, though, the departing guru will follow big games such as Saturday’s Test at Twickenham mostly from afar. “I watched Wales play the All Blacks in Cardiff. I’ve got so many fond memories of that place. It’s my second home and I really loved my time there.”

He also senses Europe’s leading teams are on the march. “The game in Europe has improved immensely. When I watched France last year I thought they were bloody scary. Ireland? They’re probably the most organised side in the world and they embarrassed our fellas in July. They played bloody good football and deserved to win.

“This could be one of the most competitive World Cups. There’s half a dozen sides who could do well in 2023. Ireland, France, England, New Zealand, South Africa … and I think Australia too. But Ireland have been very impressive and I’m sure by the time the World Cup comes around that England will be knocking on the door.

“I’d imagine, like any World Cup team, they’ll be trying to finalise their team and develop some new strategies. Originality is important. You’ve got some great brains in the game these days and they’re all thinking about how to get an edge. You can’t do what everybody else is doing. You’ve got to think and maybe not show too much yet. But I think France are the favourites. They just need to play a bit more rugby together.” Henry may be walking away but lifelong rugby coaches never entirely switch off.