When Wayne Smith checked the morning post one day he got a revolting surprise. Upset that her son hadn’t been selected, a mother had sent him a letter smeared in what he thought was faeces. Possibly human.
The poo was symbolic, the mother said, of Smith’s ability as a selector and coach. “The note ended ‘and you drive a shit car’. That cut me deep,” Smith says, chuckling at the memory. “I loved my car. I think a lot of coaches will have had some pretty tough experiences like that.”
Smith is stepping away from such missives, putting himself out for a bit of “rotation and reconditioning” after being an assistant coach to the All Blacks since 2004 (with two years off) and a 20-year involvement with the team as player, head coach (2000-01) and assistant coach to John Hart, Graham Henry and now Steve Hansen.
He leaves, in Hansen’s words, “a huge hole to fill”.
“I think it’s foolish if we think we are going to replace him, because you never do. You don’t replace Graham Henry, you don’t replace Brian Lochore, you just have people who come in and do it differently,” says Hansen.
“Whoever is coming in next has a good platform to start with and their challenge is to get it even better.”
The new assistant coach will almost certainly come from within New Zealand. An overseas-based coach can apply (they can’t as head coach – a role that requires candidates to be coaching in New Zealand) but it is likely Hansen will pick from the Super Rugby ranks, with the Highlanders’ Scott McLeod the leading contender and the Hurricanes’ John Plumtree another possible contender.
With Mike Cron looking after the forwards, the new coach will need to focus on the attack or defence – roles Smith has filled in the past. Hansen and recently re-signed assistant coach Ian Foster are adaptable and will look for the best “fit” – not a straight specialist in defence or attack. They’d also like someone they think could eventually be head coach – after Foster who is already seen as Hansen’s likely successor.
But the person will need to be more than just a good rugby coach. They will need to be a decent bloke (sorry, but it is going to be a bloke) who is happy to toil away in the back room, away from the limelight. They will need a good sense of humour and a thick skin – to cope with the public scrutiny and Hansen’s quips. It will help if they have a stable home life because the All Blacks coaches are away from home about half of the year – and when they are home, they are invariably still preoccupied by rugby.
Smith grew up in a rugby family and his wife, Trish, and two boys are well versed not just in the game, but its demands and toll. After all, he has devoted 20 of his 60 years to the All Blacks.
Trish once wrote to me, taking me to task for describing Wayne as “ashen faced” after a defeat. Her point was that win, lose or draw her husband was exhausted after every match and trying to describe him in defeat was pointless and unfair. She was right.
Their son, Josh, who is a bit of a dag, was at the famous “Game of the Century” in 2000 when the All Blacks raced out to a 24-0 lead, only for the Wallabies to come back and level the match at 24-24 at halftime. Josh rose, turned to a friend of his father who he was at the match with and declared “that man has got to go”. It was the All Blacks coach he was referring to.
Smith survived that game as the All Blacks won 39-35 but he was gone a year later after the All Blacks lost to Australia in Dunedin and then in Sydney.
Frustrated by the manner of the loss, Smith did what can only be termed a very “Wayne Smith” thing to do and questioned whether he was the right man for the job.
Introspection wasn’t what those deciding his fate wanted to hear and Smith was let go, replaced by the disastrous pairing of Robbie Deans and John Mitchell. What followed was a low point in All Black history, especially from a public relations perspective. But it was the making of Smith as a coach.
“I’m a hard marker on myself. I’ve always thought you can only fix where you’re the problem and that’s a good thing because if you’re the problem you can go about fixing it.
“I saw that I was a problem in 2001. We lost a game we shouldn’t have lost, we lost a game the same way the year before. That was my accountability and I said it.”
Smith also learnt that he was too driven by the result, too focused on the outcome.
“That’s changed over the years. Of course I still want to win and the expectation is that you’ll win but it’s changed subtly to help others to get better so that we can win.”
It’s an ethos that now typifies the All Blacks. Where competition for places once led to bitter rivalries, now we see players like Keven Mealamu actively helping Dane Coles succeed him at hooker.
But Smith hasn’t lost his competitive edge. One of his frustrations coaching the All Blacks with Henry from 2004 to 2011 was that no matter how good they were, they were always judged on their inability to win the World Cup.
“Winning the Tri-Nations, the Bledisloe Cup, the Lions series and we won three grand slams, they were massive pinnacle achievements for us, but seemingly not to everyone.
“It wasn’t till we won the final in 2011 that it legitimised the 89 wins out of 103 previously.
“As an ex-All Black and proud All Black coach I loved every game and cherished every single win in the jersey. And I think our country should do that.”
That passion for the All Blacks will be hard to replace. It comes from having played for them and from Smith’s deep seated belief in the legacy of the jersey.
In 2008, before the All Blacks played Munster, he talked about the history of the team and how the current team had to atone for the defeat of the 1978 side. When he spoke about how “we” had lost to Munster, he didn’t mean he had played that day, because he hadn’t, he meant that the All Blacks family had lost that day; a score needed to be settled.
Former captain Reuben Thorne says Smith was a huge influence on the culture at the Crusaders that still exists today, and in the All Blacks where everything that’s done is run through a very simple test first. Is it good for the team?
Smith is confident his leaving the All Blacks is good for the team – and him.
“I know what it takes to be in this job. You’re away 170 days a year. There’s a lot of pressure and scrutiny around it. It’s an absolute pleasure and privilege but it does take its toll. I want to go while I still have the hunger to do the job.”
It took a while though, to convince Hansen that Smith leaving was the right thing.
“He’s not for turning Steve, is he. Any discussion we had last year, just before we turned away he said ‘You’ll be there for the World Cup son’.”
So Smith turned to a persuasive force to convince Hansen his time was up. He rang his wife, Tash. “We had a couple of discussions, Tash and I, and she’s a wise woman. I could tell that she was going to help me and pass on the message, probably in a better way than I was passing it on.”
Hansen admits Smith’s was a cunning plan. “I knew I’d lost the cause when he went to Tash. I knew he was dead set serious at that point.”
So Smith has put himself out to pasture. He has, he joked, rotated himself out for a bit of reconditioning. He’s gone, but only a fool would bet against Wayne Smith being back. After all, his blood runs black.