Haunted and taunted in SA

Keo, in his News24 column, writes that South Africa is the ghost that haunts Graham Henry the coach.

Henry’s track record in South Africa is ordinary when compared to his feats in New Zealand and elsewhere. And Henry knows that defeats in South Africa will reignite the debate that this All Blacks team is not good enough to win the World Cup.

It will also again raise the question of why Henry, for all his tactical genius, cannot find a way of dominating South African teams in South Africa.

In building a case to prove the mortality of Henry and his All Blacks team, you have to start with Henry’s record as a coach in South Africa.

Let’s go back to the Auckland Blues’ glory Super 12 years of 1996, 1997 and 1998. They won two titles in succession and lost the third with a minute to play. Henry’s success rate was in the mid 80s, which is absolutely brilliant.

But then you look at his record in South Africa with a Blues team that was the All Blacks in another playing strip. In 1996 the Blues were hammered 34-22 by a Lions team that was near the bottom of the table. A week later the Blues sneaked a desperate 30-23 win against the Sharks. That’s one from two in his first visit.

In 1997 the Blues were held to a 40-all draw by a struggling Northern Transvaal team and the next week were unconvincing in beating Free State 24-5. That’s one from two. In 1998 the Blues were physically dominated by a Sharks team that won 24-8 in Durban. And the following week they needed a controversial penalty try in the last move of the game to beat the Lions 38-37. Again that’s one from two. Henry’s Super 14 coaching record of three from six in South Africa is terrible when compared to his overall success.

Fast forward to his tenure as All Blacks coach. Henry has lost just three Tests in three years. He has won the Tri-Nations twice, claimed the Grand Slam in winning in Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh and at Twickenham.

His teams have won in Australia (twice), they’ve won in Buenos Aires and they’ve won in Paris. But in South Africa his team has not won in two attempts. Henry’s All Blacks coaching success is mid 80s. His success in South Africa is 0/2. There is familiarity in his Super 14 attempts and his Test attempts.

Henry, unlike his predecessor John Mitchell, just can’t seem to break down the South African approach. Mitchell’s All Blacks were the most convincing against the Boks, even more so than John Hart’s vintage of 1996 and 1997, who won six from seven. Mitchell’s All Blacks played the game at pace, used the width of the field to expose South African vulnerability and mostly played away from South Africa’s confrontational and conservative style.

Mitchell’s forwards fronted against the Boks, but that was not the sole focus of their approach. In 2002 Mitchell’s Boks scored nine tries against the Boks in two matches. In 2003 they scored a record seven in Pretoria and got another three in the World Cup quarter-final win. The only time they played an attritional forward-based game, they nearly lost in Dunedin.

Henry’s All Blacks, in South Africa, have come across as laboured, hassled and intimidated. In both defeats in 2004 and 2005 they were physically outmuscled and bullied. The sight of an All Blacks team getting smashed doesn’t happen too often, but in South Africa we’ve seen it twice in the last two visits.

Chris Jack, last year and this week, described South Africa as an intimidating place. Every All Black talks about the bruising nature of the contest. The All Blacks, more than at any other place, doubt their own ability in South Africa and under Henry they’ve been stifled against the Boks in South Africa.

Who knows why?

Henry’s pedigree is in his achievements as a coach in New Zealand and Wales. His players are the best in the world. But they arrive in the Republic and the granite of the All Black does tend to turn to marshmallow. Just like the tactician in Henry gets tortured.

We’ve even seen it in the Super 14 with the current All Blacks, as recently as this season.

The Crusaders, unbeaten in the tournament, played a Stormers team that couldn’t buy a win all year. The Stormers got in the face of the Crusaders and sustained it for 80 minutes. They got the win.

The Cheetahs did the same to a Hurricanes team loaded with All Black stars. The Cats, reduced to 14 men for 40 minutes, physically battered the Chiefs into submission. The Blues were hammered in Durban and ironically the Highlanders, the underachievers among New Zealand’s teams, proved the most successful in South Africa.

What this season proved again is that New Zealand’s players don’t like touring here. They feel the hatred at the ground and it gets to them. The next two Tests in the next two weekends will give New Zealanders a reality check that next year’s World Cup may be another letdown.

You can’t dismiss New Zealand’s form in the last two years. But neither can you dismiss the one glaring failure in all of it, which is playing in South Africa. It has to count for something and it has to cast doubt among the New Zealanders.

And when an All Blacks team has doubt, the opposition has a chance. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough when the All Blacks are in South Africa.

The All Blacks may talk about the World Cup as their only focus, but defeat again in South Africa will hurt them more than winning the Tri-Nations for a second successive year has delighted them.

Defeat will show they remain scarred and vulnerable. Defeat, though, will only be consistent with Henry’s coaching record in South Africa. So don’t be surprised if the All Blacks lose on Saturday. It’s not like this team knows how to win in South Africa.