New Zealander Graham Henry, a former teacher at New Zealand Auckland Grammar School became Wales Coach in the summer of 1998 following a disastrous Wales tour to South Africa.
Henry started with a clean sheet approach and within months had begun to reform the National Team, not least in terms of its confidence going into matches earning him the tag ‘The Great Redeemer’. Although the 1999 Lloyds TSB Five Nations started in disaster for Wales at Murrayfield with a Scotland try in the opening seconds, Henry’s Wales team, structured around Captain Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins at outside half, a talented back line and a forwards pack marshalled by Scott Quinnell began to turn around their fortunes.
Henry’s Wales went to the Stade de France and delivered a skin-of-the-teeth victory 33-34 over France in March 1999, the first victory in Paris for over twenty years, and the first victory over France in their new National Stadium. A narrow victory but nonetheless an important psychological victory and although France missed a kick late on in the game that would have edged them in front, Wales were worthy winners.
A successful friendly against Italy was followed by what was probably Henry’s finest hour as Wales Coach the 32-31 Wembley sign off over England where Henry’s tactics ensured dominant line out play for Wales who matched an England team with World Cup ambitions just minutes away from lifting the Five Nations trophy. 31-25 down Wales were on the march, Scott Gibbs made an angled run off a pass from a Scott Quinnell line out and thumped over the line to draw Wales within one point, Neil Jenkins stepped up in the dying seconds and slotted the ball between the posts ensuring victory and a triumphant last hurrah for the ‘Home’ side at the spiritual home of World Football.
By now, what would later become a ten match winning sequence was underway and gathering legs; three matches on the bounce, two of which were against teams fancied to win the Five Nations, one of them an eventual Rugby World Cup finalist months later. Henry took Wales to Argentina and returned with a Wales team that won the series 2-0 against the Pumas; then he delivered a major and elusive victory over South Africa in the opening match at the Millennium Stadium in June of that year; six victories and counting.
Canada and France in the World Cup warm up matches followed to stretch the run to eight matches before Wales beat Argentina and Japan in the opening two games of the 1999 Rugby World Cup to make it ten in a row. The wheels eventually came off the wagon for Henry against Samoa in Wales’s final pool game of the tournament, when the Islanders pulled off a famous victory, the run had come to an end and with it the momentum, Australia followed in the quarter-finals and Wales never really looked like getting going in a match which Australia ultimately dominated and won.
Henry’s first Six Nations produced mixed fortunes, an opening day loss to World Cup finalists France appeared to dent the aura of a new beginning with Wales only mustering a mere three points from the boot of Neil Jenkins. Moving on from the Rugby World Cup, Henry changed his Captain and his Wales side were on the end of a thumping by England at Twickenham. In spite of losses to the two sides they had defeated the season before, Wales did win their remaining Six Nations game in 2000. The form Henry’s side had shown in 1999 was never really recaptured and 2001 produced another ambiguous Six Nations Championship, although Wales fans will never know whether their team would have beaten Ireland if their momentum had not been broken by the foot and mouth epidemic that caused a postponement to parts of that year’s tournament.
After a whitewash at Lansdowne Road Henry resigned as National Coach on February 3rd 2002, the start of that season’s Six Nations Championship.
Henry’s tenure had provided Wales with a rollercoaster ride of fine rugby moments, as well as some of the most painful defeats, yet during his tenure, many youngsters were blooded on the summer tour to Japan who eventually went on to become full internationals during the successful Grand Slam 2005 campaign.
Henry later took on the job as Head Coach for New Zealand, his successor at Wales, Steve Hansen later joining him at the end of his tenure as Wales Coach.
Whilst he was Wales Coach, Henry also became Head Coach for the British & Irish Lions for the 2001 tour of Australia and presided over a 2-1 series defeat, a disappointment given the magnanimous way in which his Lions, including several big name Wales internationals, had demolished Australia in the opening test of the series. His experience would ultimately come back to haunt the Lions four years later, when as New Zealand Coach, Henry then demolished the Lions with a 3-nil series whitewash.
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