In almost three decades at the very sharp end of the game, Graham Henry has known the despair of failure, moments of blackness that cocooned him after falling short of immense public expectation.
The British and Irish Lions tour of 2001, controversial and heated and lost in desperate fashion. The World Cup of 2007 when his All Blacks were stupefied by French abandon and a notoriously forward pass.
Henry says he was lucky – he survived the axe and tasted sweet redemption, sating New Zealand’s 24-year thirst for the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011 against the glorious backdrop of a bubbling Eden Park.
In the time since, the courageous testimonies of icons like Henry and Jonny Wilkinson have kept mental health relatively prominent. Liam Squire, one of the most uncompromising players in Steve Hansen’s arsenal, chose to make himself unavailable for this year’s showpiece, in part to look after his brain.
Then there was the incredibly arresting, monumentally important tale of Kearnan Myall, the former Wasps lock who said the pressures of the sport drove him to the brink of taking his own life.
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With all this immense bravery and all these compelling tales come sympathy and soundbites. The worry is that in some professional environments, a substantial culture change has yet to follow. “There’s no hiding when you’re a professional sportsperson, everybody is looking at you and judging you and you’re only as good as your last game,” Henry told RugbyPass.
“There’s pressure to perform and they need support. Teams at the top level of sport are getting there, but it’s an area where we’re working on our expertise and there’s still a long way to go. It’s probably the most important part of the game now, making sure we’re good physically and mentally. We’ve got the physical side well sorted because we’ve been doing it for a long time. The mental side, we haven’t.
“There are two parts: one, handling expectation and pressure on the field and having clarity of mind, and the other is handling the demands of the game from week to week, month to month, year to year, and staying in good shape mentally.
'Everyone makes mistakes. I have made mine and I have learned the lessons that have come from it.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 28, 2019
“It’s a lot about individuals working out what’s best for them, how do they stay on top of their game as best they can. It might be a lot to do with exercise, having good support, good mentors, good mates, a good home situation and getting out of that rugby environment occasionally so you can have a break.
“Also having other interests in your life. For a lot of professional players, it’s all about the rugby and they haven’t got much else going on. The best rugby players are those who have a holistic view of things and other interests apart from their professional sporting contracts.”
That quarter-final loss to France twelve years ago was one of just 15 in Henry’s 103 Tests as All Blacks head coach. He tackled the colossal pressure of a nation that lusted for glory and was ruthless when they didn’t see losing as a key part of his blueprint.
'Your hotel team room had two fridges absolutely jam-packed with Steinlager… lads piled into it.’@VictorTait of @Scotlandteam takes @JLyall93 on an amusing trek back to the amateur era of 1987 when the @AllBlacks frightened @rugbyworldcup opposition https://t.co/wEuj8WH18y
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 31, 2019
Building on those foundations, it was New Zealand and then the rest for a time in world rugby. An unshakeable black juggernaut that never seemed to wilt when others frayed in the furnace. Now, the gap has narrowed. Whatever you think of the world rankings, New Zealand are no longer supreme at the summit. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa all have form and depth and entirely credible title challenges.
“I’m not saying pressure and expectation is not there for the All Blacks, but they have tried to make sure they have got the skills to handle it and use it as a motivation,” said Henry. “I don’t think the expectation is going to be the biggest challenge for them – for this World Cup, there are a large number of sides who are very capable. That’s the big difference from 2015 to 2019.
“Particularly from Europe – the English, Irish and Welsh look good – and South Africa has improved. They were really struggling but over the last couple of years have regrouped and got some self-belief. It’ll probably be the closest World Cup ever. That’s the way it should be – lots of good rugby teams all competing for the big prize.”
— Rugby Union Russia (@russiarugby) September 15, 2019
Ask Henry what irks him most about the modern game, and he doesn’t talk about mental well-being or scrum resets or the cataclysmic warfare of the breakdown. What he hates above all is the erosion of the values on which he and thousands of others were reared, the jeering and taunting, the desire to rub the face of a vanquished opponent.
“I watched Italy play France in a warm-up game recently and it was an absolute shambles. Both teams were deliberately infringing. I just felt sorry for the guy trying to officiate,” he said. “Every time one team got the better of the other in the scrum, everybody was running in and rubbing heads and rubbing the heads of the opposition – all that rubbish.
“At lineouts, the opposition were yelling out to try and prevent the call going from the lineout leader to the hooker. All those little things which are creeping into the game, which are negative. The game has been fabulous for a long time. There’s a lot of pride in how it is played, the camaraderie of players from different teams. I just think that’s slipping and we’re getting some things that we don’t need.
“When one side dominates the other at the scrum, all the yahooing, patting the opposition on the head, that’s complete rubbish. It’s just not part of the game, in my opinion. You can go to a school game and it’s happening. People are copying what they see at the top level. It’s just not in the values or spirit of the game. Rugby could do a good job in cutting that rubbish out. We don’t need that. I hope they stamp it out at World Cup time.”
For the next six weeks or so, Henry is in Japan, where he will be inducted into World Rugby’s hall of fame alongside his majestic former captain, Richie McCaw. He is also there to help out his old friend Kingsley Jones, the Welshman charged with making Canada competitive in a pool teeming with sharks – the All Blacks, Springboks and Italy will all expect to gobble them up.
During the season, Jones is not blessed with great access to his players, much as the Pacific Island nations struggle to get a squad together in time to be cohesive enough against the bigger beasts. In the lead-up to the showpiece, seedy tales emanated from France, suggestions that some clubs were incentivising their islanders not to answer the call of their country in exchange for sizeable remuneration.
Canada has officially arrived! ????
— Rugby Canada (@RugbyCanada) September 18, 2019
“The greatest moments (Pacific Islanders) have are often playing for their nation and we shouldn’t deny them that,” Henry insisted. “World Rugby should police that more strictly and I’m sure they’re trying to do that but there needs to be more effort put in to there.
“Some of the Pacific Islands nations are a bit disappointed by that. And the Canadian boys find it difficult to get home because the window is so short and they get home and they’re playing a game in four days’ time, there’s no preparation time.
“They are getting better by the week and they have improved immensely from where they were a few weeks ago. As long as they can play to their potential and enjoy the experience, that must be their goal. If they feel they’ve put on a good display and done their best, they can’t do any more than that.”
WATCH: The trailer for the new RugbyPass behind the scenes documentary with Tonga as they prepare for the World Cup in Japan
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