Sunday 22 September 2019

Hansen hails influence of departing 'Professor'

Wayne Smith. Photo: Getty Images
Wayne Smith. Photo: Getty Images

Ben Coles

Farewell then to the man known as 'The Professor', and in a country like New Zealand where rugby is stitched onto the soul, that is some nickname.

Today marks Wayne Smith's final game with the All Blacks after a 20-year association, a chance in Brisbane for one final win over Australia.

Smith's last home match as New Zealand's assistant coach, before wins in Buenos Aires and Cape Town, could hardly turned out any better with the 57-0 drubbing handed out to the Springboks.

His calling card has been defensive strategy, building the All Blacks' counter-attack into the best form of defence, often the overlooked strength in New Zealand's recent run of dominance.

The emphasis has been on decision-making first, skills second, prioritising shape and understanding of space, an approach honed during his time in Italy during the early 1990s towards the end of his career learning from former French full-back Pierre Villepreux and Andre Buonomo.

Steve Hansen, the All Blacks head coach, has worked with Smith, who won 17 Test caps as a fly-half, going back to the 1980s during their time with Canterbury and will miss not only a coaching assistant but a right-hand man. Scott McLeod, assistant at the Highlanders, will replace Smith.

"He's very open-minded, he shares things... he was inventive, and he carried that innovation into his coaching," Hansen said. "He's never sat still as a coach and he's always been very passionate about it.

"He won't be defined by whatever happens in this match. He's been a great coach. He's done something magnificently for the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby, and probably world rugby. We can all be proud of him."

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Smith leaves behind some legacy. Four Super Rugby titles, two with the Crusaders in 1998-1999 and then two more assisting the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, multiple Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship crowns and of course two Rugby World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015.

There were also three years with Northampton Saints in the early 2000s, lifting the club out of a slump after Smith was burned by the NZRU in 2001, after two years into a head coaching role with the All Blacks, when they moved on to appoint John Mitchell.

Not that every Rugby World Cup was a joyous experience. Smith recalled a moment when the failure to win in 2007 really hit home.

"It always annoyed me because week after week after week you saw these guys put everything on the line, you'd win Grand Slams or Lions series or Tri-Nations, but in a lot of people's eyes we were still no good because we hadn't won a World Cup," Smith recalled.

"I remember in 2009 I went to the northern hemisphere to meet with Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter. I came into Heathrow and the guy on immigration obviously recognised me and he put his hands round his neck and started making choking noises. I said, 'What's up mate?' and he goes 'you guys are chokers'. I told him I couldn't believe this, that I just wanted to come in for a couple of weeks to see a couple of players. 'Nah, you're chokers, mate'. It made a real impression on me."

Stephen Donald's penalty for the 8-7 victory over France in the 2011 final put an end to those accusations, with Smith widely appreciated ever since.

In many ways he embodies the current All Blacks ethos, endorsing both a big work ethic and a lack of ego within a successful squad.

"The trophies and the medals, they tarnish over time," Smith said. "It's the people that count." The All Blacks are losing a good one. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Australia - I Folau; M Koroibete, T Kuridrani, K Beale, R Hodge; B Foley, W Genia; S Sio, T Polota-Nau, S Kepu; R Simmons, A Coleman; J Dempsey, M Hooper (c), S McMahon. Reps: S Moore, T Robertson, A Alaalatoa, L Tui, N Hanigan, N Phipps, S Kerevi, H Speight.

New Zealand - D McKenzie; W Naholo, R Crotty, SB Williams, R Ioane; L Sopoaga, A Smith; K Hames, D Coles, N Laulala; S Whitelock, S Barrett; L Squire, S Cane, K Read. Reps: C Taylor, W Crockett, O Tu'ungafasi, P Tuipulotu, A Savea, TJ Perenara, A Lienert-Brown, D Havili.

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