Rugby World Cup: 'Professor' Wayne Smith eases back towards retirement after guiding Black Ferns to Eden Park final

The hard work is done.

Asked to overhaul of the world champion NZ women's team, fallen into disrepair through three years of COVID-19 disruption, the Rugby Professor is already easing back into Waihi Beach retirement.

Former All Blacks first-five Wayne Smith has achieved so much as a coach, including his much-vaunted, behind-the-scenes contributions to two World Cup-winning campaigns with the All Blacks, yet this may go down as his greatest accomplishment of all.

Taking the Black Ferns from record test losses to England and France 12 months, and then the public deconstruction of the team's very culture, Smith, 65, has guided them back to a World Cup final in a manner that has won the hearts of new fans throughout the nation.

The NZ women laid one of those ghosts to rests last week, overcoming the French in the semi-finals, barely surviving a last-gasp penalty attempt that probably should have dashed their dreams right there.

"I think we're in a place not a lot of people thought we'd get to," reflects Smith. "There was hope.

"That French team is outstanding - athletic, big, well-prepared - and worked hard to try and get to this final. Now we've got the best team of all-time, probably, on the weekend.

"We know what we've got to do to win it, but we've got to be at our very best - every single individual - to get close."

Before them now, an English juggernaut that have won a world record 30 straight games, since their last defeat to New Zealand at San Diego in 2019 - their only lapse since losing the last World Cup final to the Black Ferns in Ireland.

Smith, his staff and his players have been quick to apply the dreaded GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) tag to their rivals, keen to claim the underdog card on their own home turf.

He admits this week has been the easiest of his unexpected tenure with the women, even finding time to take in a movie - Dame Val Adams' More Than Gold - rather than having to plan ahead for the next game.

Wayne Smith in action at Black Ferns training
Wayne Smith in action at Black Ferns training. Photo credit: Photosport

There are no more next games in this campaign, and precious few next campaigns for one of the game's greatest minds and probably the most widely respected man in NZ rugby, despite his own disastrous tenure as All Blacks head coach.

After coaching the Crusaders to two Super Rugby crowns, he was elevated to the national team job in 2000, failing to win the Bledisloe Cup from Australia and finishing second to the Wallabies in successive Tri Nations.

Disappointed with his own results, Smith insisted his role be contestable and many - including his employers - took that as a sign he didn't want it, even though he re-applied. 

Undone by his own integrity, he was replaced by John Mitchell.

"I always find quarter-finals and semi-finals nervewracking," says Smith. "I always find the final less so, because you've done the work and there's no need to motivate anyone."

The journey hasn't always been so smooth. When he accepted the role of Black Ferns director of rugby, Smith wanted to introduce a style that would capture the imagination of players and public alike.

"With our genetics and rugby, we've always been able to reinvent ourselves and always had an attacking mindset," he says. "My favourite team in history was the 1967-69 All Blacks - Brian Lochore captained it and Ian Kirkpatrick was my favourite player.

"I used to watch them, and their forwards could catch and pass like backs, so I always had that in my mind. When you talk about 15-man rugby, that was 15-man rugby.

"That's what I love about the game and once I got put into this role, my aim was to try and be true to that with the women."

First, he had to deprogramme his charges from playing the way they had previously.

"The first week was obviously the start," Smith explains. "We played four quarters against the Lincoln academy boys and I had to grab one of the girls by the pants, as she was heading over the far side of the field, when the attack was going here.

Black Ferns celebrate their semi-final win over France
Black Ferns celebrate their semi-final win over France. Photo credit: Photosport

"They were just used to different structures and they were very structured, whereas my idea was, if the attack's going on here, that's where we want to be, where the ball is, rather than running to a place I'm told to go.

"That was eye-opening to me, but the other thing that was eye-opening was how quickly they adjusted, when they saw the logic in what we were trying to do. We knew we couldn't come to this tournament and play the same way the other teams did and get this far - we knew we had to do something different."

Smith admits there have been times when he doubted his own obsession with the expansive game. While the Ferns are unbeaten under his watch, outscoring opponents by an average of 36 points over 11 games, they haven't always been as the scoreboard might suggest.

Even during this tournament, they found themselves down 17-0 in their opening encounter against Australia, before rattling on 41 unanswered points for victory.

Next up against Wales, the forwards were given a thorough examination that raised doubts over whether they could compete against the world's best up front. When New Zealand drew their pool rivals again in the quarter-finals, the pack came out breathing fire to settle any reservations.

"We've played some good rugby," insists Smith. "We've played rugby I've been really proud of.

"I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing when I came in, but I was adamant we should create a game that was true to our DNA... not re-inventing anything, but just teaching the girls how to play on top of teams and how to create the skills that only we need, because we're the only ones playing that sort of game.

"There's a unique set of skills and unique mindset to playing how we play, and I wasn't sure if we could create that or not. I think we've done that, we're not perfect, but hopefully it will provide a blueprint for the future, because it's excited people and it's excited the girls."

Wayne Smith embraces Kendra Reynolds after victory over Wales
Wayne Smith embraces Kendra Reynolds after victory over Wales. Photo credit: Photosport

That style has excited the New Zealand public to the extent that another sellout crowd of more than 40,000 is expected at Eden Park for Saturday's final - a far cry from Smith's previous experience with the women's side as an assistant, when they faced then-world champions England at Burnham Military Camp in 1997. 

"Once you're out there, it's the noise that counts," says Smith. "As someone who's played there myself, I couldn't tell you how many were there or what it looked like, but I could tell you what it sounded like.

"I think we're getting better at adapting to it - we're not quite there yet, but hopefully this weekend we will be."

Just who takes up the torch after this tournament remains to be seen. Smith has undoubtedly groomed assistants Wes Clarke and Whitney Hansen, while cultural and leadership manager Allan Bunting has Olympic gold medal pedigree with the Black Ferns Sevens and a Super Rugby Aupiki crown with Chiefs Manawa.

One thing is almost certain - the Professor is leaving the building.

"This has been an experience I never thought I would enjoy so much," he says. "I've come to love it - I love these girls.

"I've enjoyed the whole atmosphere. It's been a lot of fun - but I've got other plans coming up."

Catch the Rugby World Cup live on Spark Sport or free-to-air on Three, or join Newshub from 7:30pm Saturday for live updates of the Black Ferns v England final