Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns banking on Wayne Smith-Sir Graham Henry axis as New Zealand begins title defence

If there are any nerves for the Black Ferns in their quest to win a home Rugby World Cup, the team couldn't ask for better mentors than Wayne Smith and Sir Graham Henry.

Eleven years on from guiding the All Blacks to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Smith and Sir Graham are at the helm again - albeit roles reversed - as coach and assistant.

This time around, Smith leads the team while Henry is assistant coach, after the pair came on board following the resignation of Glenn Moore earlier this year.

Ruahei Demant and Wayne Smith.
Ruahei Demant and Wayne Smith. Photo credit: Image - Getty Images

But having two World Cup winners on board is a luxury few teams can call on in any sport, especially for a pinnacle event on home soil.

And for senior players, calling on the likes of Smith and Sir Graham has been a revelation in helping prepare for the pressures of a home World Cup.

"They've been awesome," said halfback Kendra Cocksedge. "With Ted [Henry] he just chimes in once hardly ever - but when he does, everyone's listening and ears are on.

"He might say something completely random to what we're actually working on, but it's a gold nugget. It's the same with Smithy. 

"They both just bring that knowledge. We've talked a lot around having a World Cup at home, the pressures from family asking 'have you got us a ticket?' all those small things.

"We've talked about that, and it came from when the All Blacks played here, and when Smithy was involved too.

The Black Ferns lift the Laurie O'Reilly Cup.
The Black Ferns lift the Laurie O'Reilly Cup. Photo credit: Image - Photosport

"He's bought a lot of that knowledge in prepping us for the 'what if?' situation."

The 'what if?' situation is something Smith and Sir Graham are well versed in. At the 2011 tournament, the All Blacks lost Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden - three key players in one position.

And even though the team got through with fourth-choice first-five Stephen Donald - who himself became a cult hero for his match-winning heroics - preparing for the unexpected is a mantra Sir Graham in particular still holds.

"One of the things we learnt when we were involved with the men was the unexpected will happen in a tournament," he said. "You've just got to handle it.

"That was big during our time. I'm sure there'll be incidents in this tournament where the unexpected has happened.

"Red card, injury to key players, and how you handle those things. At the end of the day, you've got no excuse. You've just got to try and do the business."

Naturally, pressure of a home World Cup is an understandable part of the Black Ferns' journey to try and defend their title.

And it's not just the players affected either, with Smith calling on his former mentor to deal with what's to come over the coming months - for players and coaches alike.

The Black Ferns.
The Black Ferns. Photo credit: Image - Getty Images

"That's what I've got my old mate for," Smith said of Sir Graham. "Remember seeing him in the box in that last 20 minutes in 2011? The players were fine, we were the ones that were a mess.

"We're working on that clearly. We've got a lot of experience. We've got gold medal winners from the Olympics, Commonwealth Games. We've got World Cup winners in the team, they're talking to other women about that.

"It's not easy, because it's reality. It's going to be a world record crowd for a women's test match.

"Of course there's going to be a lot of excitement, some anxiety around that. The thing you've got to realise is the game goes quickly. 

"You've got to make your mark, you can't let it go. It'll be halftime before you know it, you've had a half of rugby.

"You've got to make sure you're in the game."

Despite only being together for months, Smith's Black Ferns have come a long way.

Bouncing back from the horrors of the 2021 northern tour, which snowballed into the resignation of Moore, the team are unbeaten under Smith's tutelage.

In that time, the Black Ferns have won the Pacific Four series, as well as defeated Australia to win the Laurie O'Reilly series.

But despite impressing from the word 'go' as Black Ferns coach, Smith concedes the proof will be in the pudding when the World Cup begins on Saturday.

"You always want more time," Smith said. "I think we've made progress, the girls are excited. They want to play, they want to attack.

"I think they like the style we're trying to put on the track. We'll see on the weekend."

Watch the Rugby World Cup live on Spark Sport or free-to-air on Three, or join us on Saturday for live updates of the Black Ferns v Australia World Cup opener.  

Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns banking on Wayne Smith-Sir Graham Henry axis as New Zealand begins title defence