Wayne Smith’s exacting standards keep All Blacks on top

The man known as ‘the Professor’ is a vital cog in New Zealand’s powerful machine

Known as the Professor, he provides much of the spark within the current All Blacks brains trust, and has been doing so now for most of the last two decades. All told, Wayne Smith’s imprint has been all over four different Super Rugby triumphs with two different franchises, along with successive World Cups with the All Blacks, and six Tri Nations come Rugby Championships.

In latter years, the one-time All Blacks outhalf has not only eschewed the limelight, but job offers all around the world.

Rugby consumes him, but he is quite content to quietly help the All Blacks to never rest on their achievements, to continually reinvent themselves.

“He’s had a huge influence,” admitted their free-running outhalf Beauden Barrett, perhaps as central as any one player to giving the All Blacks another dimension to their running game with his own ability to take the ball to the line and the threat his speed poses.


“His knowledge from playing for the All Blacks as a first five eight and obviously being a successful coach, whether its offence of defence . . . he’s taught me a lot. Even in the last year. I’ve only been working with him for a short amount of time but I’ve learned a lot. So, he’s a great man and a great coach. He’s someone that I talk to quite a bit to develop my game.”

Doug Howlett played under Smith when he was head coach of the All Blacks in 2000 and 2001, and again when Smith returned as an assistant coach for the 2004-07 World Cup cycle. The All Blacks’ all-time leading try scorer says: “He’s somebody that is always pro-active in his thinking. That’s the best way of putting a label on him.”

“He’s a moving target I guess. He wants us to be a moving target as the All Blacks. He never wants us to be the world champions and that’s going to be enough. He says: ‘World champions? Now let’s flip it, and see what else we can do.’ Because everybody else is chasing that target. He’d be the lead on idea generation in terms of game plan, strategy and I must say he is exceptional at what he does.”

A mentor

Aside from his abilities as a technical coach, be it skills, tackling technique and defensive systems, or attacking off turnover ball, Smith is also seen as quite a mentor for younger and older players.

Sonny Bill Williams credits Smith as being a major influence in his transfer from rugby league to rugby union.

In 2010, All Black scrumhalf Justin Marshall commented that the best piece of coaching advice he’d received came from Smith: “I was going through a bad patch and he told me to go out and trust my instincts and be decisive – you need to trust what you do is going to be the right thing and if you do it decisively you’ll make good of it even if it’s the wrong option because you’ll do it with purpose. That’s the best piece of advice I’ve been given.”

An outhalf, despite coming through the Waikato system, Smith played for Canterbury, and then for the All Blacks, gaining 35 caps in total with 17 of them in Tests, from 1980 to '85.

In the late 1980s towards the end of his career, Smith had a stint playing and coaching in Italy with Treviso, before returning to New Zealand to finish his playing career with Canterbury. There he made the transition from player to coach – first with Canterbury then the Crusaders.

On his watch, the Crusaders won the Super 12 competition in 1998 and retained it in 1999. In each of these seasons he was also an assistant coach with the All Blacks, under the job description of technical advisor, under head coach John Hart.

When Hart bore the brunt of the unseemly flak which followed the All Blacks' 1999 World Cup campaign when losing to an inspired France in the quarter-finals at Twickenham, Smith took over for the following two years. Alas successive failures in the Tri Nations, at a time when it was considerably more competitive than it is now, meant his contract was not renewed, and John Mitchell was handed the job.

Smith tried his hand abroad, taking over a Northampton side which had fallen steeply since their success in the 2000 Heineken Cup final. He helped transform them, and they reached the Powergen Cup final that year where they lost to London Irish in Twickenham.

Graham Henry then persuaded Smith to return to the All Blacks' fold as one of his assistants alongside Steve Hansen who, like Henry, had coached the Welsh national side, which therefore meant all three of them had coached at Test level already.

For almost four years they could do no wrong. The Lions were routed 3-0 in 2005 and the All Blacks won the championship in . But in 2007 came another quarter-final ambush by an inspired French side. Despite that, the NZRU stuck by Henry, who retained Hansen and Smith, and the All Blacks squeezed over the line in 2011.

At this point Smith vowed to take a break from the game.

"It's hard to take him away from rugby," says Bundee Aki. "Apparently he wasn't too keen to coach again the year they won it. He was supposed to take a big holiday with his wife, but instead of year's break, they only had a week. He couldn't stay away from rugby."

So Smith became Dave Rennie’s assistant coach at the Waikato Chiefs, and in 2012 came the franchise’s first ever Super Rugby success, when the Chiefs routed the Sharks by 37-6 in the final in Hamilton. Just as remarkably, the Chiefs retained their title the following year, when Aki came into the team.

“I had two years with Wayne. Him and Dave Rennie were our coaches, and he [Smith] was our defensive coach. He looked at our opponents and how to defend individuals and teams. He comes up with a lot of stuff that people don’t even know or don’t even expect. He did some attacking stuff as well but mostly he did defence. He loves his defence and how a team has to defend with a lot of heart.”

Unseen work

So how good is Smith?

"One of the privileges I've had as a rugby player – and I've been coached by some good coaches – was to be coached by Wayne Smith. He helped to be where I am at the moment and was a massive influence on how I went over at the Chiefs. He likes players who love to do what he calls the unseen work, who work hard off the ball and work as a team. A lot of what he preaches is based around 'there is no 'I' in a team'. It's all about making sacrifices. He's a really, really good person. Honestly, I can't explain how much he's done for my rugby career. I rate him highly as a coach."

“I learned heaps. I learned discipline, my tackle technique, my off the ball work and stuff like that, and the unseen work.

“It’s all about unseen work, doing stuff that people outside of the game mightn’t see, or when you’re watching the game you see all the good stuff, and he’ll praise you for working hard off the ball for the betterment of the team. He loves that. If he sees that you’re working hard to the best of your ability he’s happy with that.”

“Ask anybody who’s been coached by Wayne Smith, and they’ll tell you he’s the Professor. I learned heaps off him. A lot of what I’ve achieved and how I play at the moment, is down to him.”

“He’s a great person; really down to earth and really humble. He enjoys good company, he’s very easy-going and friendly. He’ll listen to you, especially if you’re a rugby player and you’re asking him for advice. He’ll always give his time.”

Mr Angry

Not that Smith can’t be Mr Angry occasionally too. “When things don’t go right, and you don’t do what he wants you to do, he does lose his head. He can get very frustrated but he does it for the best, for the team. Even in the little things at training, like if you don’t tackle properly or you don’t train the way you want to play, he’ll have a go at you.”

“He’ll put a lot of pressure on you the whole week and then come the game that makes it a lot easier for you to stay calm and perform. But through the week he likes to put a lot of pressure on you.”

Aki recalls a particular game in his debut season with the Chiefs, when they retained their Super Rugby title. “When we played Crusaders in the round robin game, he changed a few tactics and he was probably the reason why we won that game

“We scored two charge-down tries. We played in orange and blue jerseys. He told us how Dan Carter kicked the ball, where he’ll try to kick the ball and where he’ll want us to be when he kicks the ball. That’s the kind of detail he goes into. That’s Smithy. He goes out of his way to look at every single player, and every single thing.”

“Even when it comes to Dan Carter or Richie McCaw, he’d know their weaknesses. Well, not their weaknesses as much as some tactical things to try and stop them. I think that’s why he’ll never leave New Zealand, because he knows too many things.

“He looks at every individual player and what their weaknesses are. He puts a lot of time and a lot of effort in how to manipulate teams in attack and in defence. He’s got brains. He’s very smart.”

Smith appears to enjoy having specialist coaching roles away from the spotlight, and no longer covets a head coach role or a move abroad. After the 2012 success, Smith declared he wanted to stay with the Chiefs, despite being approached by the Western Force and NSW Waratahs, and an offer from England.

However, after a third campaign with the Chiefs, Steve Hansen prevailed upon Smith to rejoin the All Blacks’ coaching ticket as an assistant coach, with his areas of responsibility being defence and turnover attack.

After the All Blacks retained the World Cup in England, Smith had again planned to take a break from the game but was persuaded to stay on by Hansen. In March of this year, the NZRU announced that not only was Smith staying on for another two years, but that his role had been expanded to assume the responsibility of skills coaching along with assistant coach Ian Foster following the departure of Mick Byrne.

“Steve presented a pretty compelling case, especially with the team facing the challenge of rebuilding and continuing its growth this year,” Smith said.

“It was a huge campaign last year and I was ready for a break, but I realised that it would be an exciting time to still be involved. I love this team and want to do everything I can to help them succeed.”

Good news for the All Blacks, bad news for their opponents this year so far and most likely for the next while to come.

“He plays a massive part in the All Blacks,” says Aki. “I’m never been in that environment, but the guys that I have played with who are in the All Blacks, say he does things exactly the same way. With the All Blacks I’m sure he’ll put even more pressure on the players, and he knows them all so well.”

Rugby Guru

“I think that’s why he hasn’t left there. I’ve asked him would he ever coach another international team and he said no, he wouldn’t, and I don’t think he ever would. I don’t think he could ever coach another international team. I think he’ll finish with the All Blacks.”

Smith looks at his own players with the same intrinsic attention to detail.

“He sees how he can make them better and gives them homework. He loves to work with young players and he loves to see young players put in a lot of hard work. He loves bringing that through. He’s known as the Professor, but for the last year I was with him I called him the Rugby Guru.”

Warren Gatland may have a point when mischievously suggesting: “Anyone in New Zealand could coach the All Blacks and be guaranteed an 85 per cent win record.”

That said, the 100 per cent winning run they’ve had since the outset of the World Cup last year is pretty decent, and no-one drives that more than their Professor.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times