After this year’s final Bledisloe Cup match between the All Blacks and Wallabies there will be some welcome relief for opponents of the World Champions. The All Blacks ‘Minister of Defence’, Wayne Smith, nicknamed the Professor for his cerebral approach to defence, counter-attack and rugby skills, hangs up his coaching whistle to spend more time with his wife and family.
Considered by many to be the sharpest mind in world rugby, Smith began his time in the iconic All Blacks jersey as a player, earning 34 caps with 17 of them being tests and then as a coach on three separate occasions. “It’s unbelievable to think I’ve been involved in playing and coaching with the All Blacks for 20 years, a third of my life,” says Smith.
He became All Blacks’ Head Coach after the 1999 World Cup failure only to lose the job in 2001. Sir Graham Henry brought him back into the fold in early 2004 as the backs coach where together with current Head Coach Steve Hansen, All Black great Sir Brian Lachore and Mental Skills Coach Gilbert Enoka they set about correcting a very broken All Blacks culture. The team culture included binge drinking, mock court sessions and a poor attitude to women. They developed the idea of a leadership group and asked for some responsibility and accountability from the whole team. The saying “better people make better All Blacks” came from this time but it wasn’t really accepted by New Zealanders as a whole and that came to a head when the All Blacks lost in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Criticism from the New Zealand public came thick and fast, particularly from Smith’s home province of Canterbury.
The pressure on the coaches between 2007 and 2011 was enormous with Henry taking a lot of the responsibility on his shoulders. All Blacks’ fans weren’t the only ones relieved when Stephen Donald kicked the All Blacks to an 8 – 7 victory over France in the final. “If [he] hadn’t got that kick over, us coaches and our wives would probably have had to leave New Zealand. It would’ve been untenable,” recalled Smith.
With the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup curse broken, New Zealand coaching’s holy trinity of Henry, Smith and Hansen could expand the ideas of co-management with a team that included some of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of footy boots. Ritchie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Kevin Mealamu, Sam Whitelock, Tony Woodcock, Jerome Kaino, Ma’a Nonu and Brad Thorn are among the All Black legends who flourished under their coaching. The idea that the team was accountable and responsible was embraced by the playing group who went on to do the impossible, back to back Rugby World Cup victories.
Henry stepped down after the 2015 World Cup that saw a performance in the quarterfinals against France that will live long in the memories of the All Blacks who had suffered a loss to the French in 2007 at the same venue. “We went through a lot of hardship following the 2007 game, so there was a lot of personal meaning … the time had come”. They went on to win that game 62 – 13.
The relationship between Hansen and Smith has been like a marriage where they have been through a lifetime of Rugby together. “I’ve been lucky to have spent a lot of time with Wayne Ross Smith over the years, firstly as a player being coached by him and, best of all, coaching alongside him with Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks … however, it’s an even greater honour to be able to call him a mate,” Hansen said.
Smith can hand over the defensive coaching role to Scott McLeod knowing he has left them in a healthy position. In his last test on home soil as the ‘Minister of Defence’ Smith watched his beloved All Blacks hold the South African Springboks to zero for only the fifth time in history. After the game Smith spoke of how the forward domination had contributed to the 57 – 0 scoreline, he spoke of the work by coaches Mike Cron and Luke Romano at the line out, but you knew he was most proud of the zero in the scoreline even though he didn’t say so.
Twenty years with the All Blacks sounds like a dream life to most rugby fans but it hasn’t always been ‘beer and skittles’ for Wayne Smith and the All Blacks. Smith had to continue to learn, develop and grow as a coach and at the same time he pushed his team and the other coaches to do the same. When the Rugby world is looking back on Smith’s All Black association, we as Rugby fans can be very proud of what he has achieved.
We thank you and congratulate you Wayne Ross Smith, you can retire from Rugby with the
knowledge that your passion for the game has left the All Blacks’ jersey, and Rugby in general, in a better place.