The Great Redeemer

Us New Zealanders have a unified passion for rugby. Despite our smallish population of 4.8 million people, we are also known as being pretty darn good at it too. The sport gives us pride as a nation as we watch our rugby teams win game after game on a national and international level. Every time we see our players run onto the field, adrenaline already pouring from them, silver fern emblazoned on their team jersey, our chests puff out a little bit and we all get that lump in our throats as we sing the national anthem, together.

A man who knows that feeling of pride all too well is ex-All Blacks coach, Sir Graham Henry. He stood by the All Blacks through 140 matches in a career that achieved a victorious tour over the British and Irish Lions in 2005, five Tri Nations, three Grand Slams and a Rugby World Cup in 2011. His feeling of pride for that team is undeniably apparent.

Growing up in Christchurch, Sir Graham had a love for team sports. Cricket and rugby in particular. He gained a degree in Physical Education, went on to teach, coach and play rugby and cricket and give a prowess to each sport not seen or experienced before. Sir Graham started his professional coaching career with the Auckland provincial rugby team and brought them to victory in the National Provincial Championship for four years in a row.

After that, he went to coach the Auckland Blues in Super Rugby and then onto the All Blacks. In 2007, Sir Graham was criticized over the All Blacks performance at the Rugby World Cup that year, but redeemed his name after leading the team to victory in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. That win named him as one of the best rugby coaches in history.

As we sat down to talk, his humility and ease was refreshing and I soon realised that talking to a Sir wasn’t daunting, after all. We talked on his legacy, love for rugby and also a special campaign that he feels a deep personal connection to and is fronting. The campaign is to build the World’s Biggest Reserve Bench in collaboration with the New Zealand Blood Service.

According to NZ Blood statistics, 29,000 patients are treated with blood or blood products in New Zealand each year. Blood keeps us alive. It constitutes seven percent of our body weight, carries precious oxygen, nutrients and proteins around our bodies, and defends against bacteria, viruses and cancers.

New Zealand Blood Service is sending a call out for help and we, as New Zealanders, all need to listen. In this country alone, the service needs 110,000 blood units in the next 12 months to keep up with demand. Donated blood will be used in helping cancer patients, those undergoing surgery, to treat shock, clotting, haemophilia sufferers and many other critical cases. It’s up to us all to donate blood and help save a life.

What started your love for rugby?

When I was a kid, I played a lot of rugby and cricket. I’m of ‘that vintage’, if you like, where everybody played those sports. I was born and bred in Christchurch – grew up there and really loved being in a team. I loved us kids playing together and doing something we were proud of. I enjoyed the culture of the games too. In time, I became a PE teacher, so sports coaching was an extension of the job. I played representative cricket and senior rugby for quite a long time. When I became a teacher, I coached both those sports. I then got into rugby coaching and really enjoyed it. I was ambitious and got obsessed.

I just had a love for sport in general and the team thing and what that did to people and for me. You make a lot of good mates out there on the field and get to enjoy their company. That’s very important. You work with a group of people to try and produce something really special. You go through some great times and the not so great. It keeps you humble – especially when you win. The losses too. You get to go through disappointing times with the team and that’s good for character building. It develops strength and perseverance.

There’s always been this real pride in what our sporting teams do. It’s across a wide range of sporting activities. We produce results that are well above our population. It’s something we should be very proud of. The results from the netball recently – that was unbelievable and a big turn around from recent times. The cricketers, you felt so proud of them with Kane Williams and the boys. Just across the board counting for everybody else. It’s great for the country because the profile gives us pride and gives us all something to aim for. I think it’s really good for the psyche of the nation.

What would you say that the proudest moment of your career has been?

I’ve always been so proud of every sporting team I’ve been associated with. From a coaching point of view, the 2011 Rugby World Cup was a bit of a pinnacle. I’d coached 140 tests at that stage and to finish on that with Richie McCaw as the captain and that team of fine young men was a fabulous feeling. We beat the French 8-7 in the final and it was a feeling of inner peace.

It was great for people who were close too. They go through a lot of stress and strain. Just for my wife, Raewyn, and the kids, it was a special moment and relief for them. All of those things. There are the guys who played the game, who I coached, who I managed with. It was special. That was the highlight, no doubt.

Rugby has given me a lot of personal enjoyment and satisfaction. I’ve been very lucky to be so involved in the game.

Are you looking forward to the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo?

Oh yes, I am. I think it’s going to be a very competitive World Cup. I think in 2015, we were the strongest side by far. Now that is questionable and I think there are a number of other teams that could win – half a dozen, even. Australia came out of the blue last weekend and gave an incredible performance. They’ll think they’ve now got a chance.

We’ve also got the three European nations of England, Wales and Ireland. South Africa are getting a lot of self-belief now with what happened with the All Blacks last weekend and they bet us last year in Wellington. Same with the Wallabies. I still think the All Blacks have their nose in front, but not by very much. It’s gonna be a very good, exciting World Cup.

What is your involvement with the New Zealand Blood Service?

I was asked to assist the New Zealand Blood Service, who are in major trouble. We haven’t got enough donors. Only four percent of New Zealanders give blood. They’re in trouble, so need a large number of donors to register and my job is trying to assist in getting that big reserve bench.

We need 100,000 New Zealanders registered to donate blood. If we don’t get enough donors, people are going to die. It’s a very important cause. When someone gives blood, they have the opportunity of saving three lives. It’s very special in helping other people. The Blood Service asked me if I would front this campaign and I feel it’s my responsibility to do so.

I think it’s a very important responsibility. I’m trying to help and ask New Zealanders to assist and register as blood donors. Then they’ll be in the books and get up to date information from the Blood Service about when and where they can donate.

It’s a very special campaign to me. I’m sure it’ll be successful if we can get the world’s biggest reserve bench of 100,000 people, then I’ll be very happy. It’s doable too. Every time a person donates blood, they’ll get a recognition and thank you from New Zealand Blood and every time the blood is used, they’ll get a recognition of saving a life. It’s an opportunity to help others and that’s a real feel good factor.

Do you regularly give blood?

I did, yes, but now they think I’m too old – I’m past my prime! I just can’t understand that! But I help in other ways. Sometimes I go to the clinic on Great South Road in Auckland and stay there for about 45 minutes to play my part. They give you a nice cup of tea and a bikkie. But you just walk out thinking you’ve played your part and it makes you feel good.

If we don’t act now, people are going to die. We all need to stand up and be counted and help make that reserve bench. If we can all tick that box, I’ll be happy and so will NZ Blood. They’re under pressure, but if that box gets ticked they’ll be over the moon.

You’ve toured the world. What would you say the best destination is you’ve travelled to?

The thing is, when you’re playing a test match, it’s like playing Eden Park. No matter where you are in the world coaching, you’re just focused on the preparation. The game could be in London, Paris, Rome, Melbourne or wherever. It’s all the same, really.

My favorite place is Rome. It was very relaxing ‘when in Rome’. It was a very nice place to be and I could enjoy that environment. It was quite low-key and everybody didn’t seem to get that fussed and I liked that. Obviously, it’s drenched in history.

I also spent four years in Wales and the Millenium Stadium is just fantastic. I think it’s probably the number one stadium in the world. Cardiff’s a city the size of Christchurch, with 250,000 people. It seemed that a lot of the Welsh people lived outside of Wales. But it’s a small country and Cardiff’s a small city with a massive, beautiful stadium that’ll hold about 80,000 people. You’re very close to the game too, when you’re watching from the seats.

The stadium is built so that the public can be part of the game. It’s a fantastic atmosphere and those Welsh supporters can sing. The people are so friendly and supportive. I’ve got lots of good mates over there. But, then again, Eden Park is home. I love home. That’s where I grew up as a coach.

What advice would you give to rugby players who may want to grow to become an All Black one day?

I think it’s a great ambition, but I think they need to be realistic and make sure the rest of their life is functioning well. The best All Black, for me, is a bloke who has other things going on and able to do something else, as well as playing the sport they love. They might have been getting a builders apprenticeship or studying at university. People like Conrad Smith or Sam Whitelock getting science degrees, or Richie McCaw doing his pilot’s license. He’s now got a helicopter business.

Those were great All Blacks because they had a number of things going on in their lives and there are so many young people concentrating too hard on becoming professional sports people. That’s fine, but they have to make sure that they’re getting through school, or work, and progressing as people and continuing that. There’s no reason why they can’t study as well as play sports professionally. For me, that makes an All Black.

How do you stay motivated?

Definitely having an outlet. Going to the beach or a walk in the forest. Whatever it is, you need something that pushes your buttons. When you’re doing a high-pressure job and need to be strong mentally, you need some time to motivate yourself by having other stimulation.

What was the best lesson you learned as a coach?

It was a lesson that took a very long time to sink in. It was when I learned that coaching was about them and not about me. It was about the development of the boys and them taking responsibility of the team and owning it with pride. When the All Blacks – with boys like Richie McCaw and Tana Umaga – changed with those rules, so did I. I think that was a very important lesson for me to learn.

Help Sir Graham Henry and New Zealand Blood Service build the World’s Biggest Reserve Bench.  For more info visit jointhebench.co.nz