x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

All Blacks' World Cup aspirations

Their defeat to Australia was a blow to their confidence, but the World Cup is still a must-win scenario for New Zealand.

New Zealand players look dejected after losing to France in the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup.
New Zealand players look dejected after losing to France in the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup.

To the New Zealand public rugby union used to be a simple game; as black and white, or more accurately, silver, as the colours of the All Blacks, their national side. You have only got to look at the first two lines of their famous haka to see how easily the national consciousness sublimates from the joys of victory to the pains of defeat.

"Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!"

Translation: "It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life!"

There is no middle ground. Yet since landing the inaugural, and their only, Rugby World Cup in 1987, New Zealanders have had to reassess what it means to follow their team. The subsequent successes and failures to land the elusive Webb Ellis Trophy have come to represent a barometer of the national psyche.

All was well in the Land of the Long White Cloud, but last weekend New Zealand's recent dominance of world rugby was brought to a shuddering halt. With 15 consecutive victories, the All Blacks stood on the cusp of greatness; complete only the third Grand Slam of Europe in their history and the unbeaten streak of 18 matches set by Lithuania, of all teams, would be beaten.

And yet, in a momentous Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong last Saturday, the world No 1 side crumpled to the final kick of the game by the 20-year-old Australian James O'Connor. It was an enormous dent in the All Blacks' towering confidence, which had been grown with every success going back to a September day last year in Waikato, when the Springboks beat them 32-29.

The modern professional often hides behind the mantra that teams approach matches one step at a time. The fresh-faced lock Anthony Boric, however, was sanguine enough to admit that his squad were blinded by the records they were hunting before that 26-24 defeat to the Wallabies.

"We definitely spoke about the records before each game, but it wasn't the main focus of that match," said the Auckland Blues second row. "We had beaten them 10 times in a row, but our previous game against them in Sydney could have gone either way. But that's Test match rugby for you.

"It was tough, as we were so close and it shows how hard it must be to do that. There's been talk of complacency creeping in, but I don't think that was an issue."

The coach Graham Henry guided the All Blacks to a 15-game unbeaten sequence in 2005-06, which was ended by the Springboks in South Africa. New Zealand went on to win their next eight matches, showing that Henry is a master at getting his team to learn from their setbacks.

Talking to the squad earlier this week ahead of their task at Twickenham against England this afternoon, they could pinpoint where things went wrong against their trans-Tasman rivals last week. But none were as concise as their captain, Richie McCaw.

"You learn your best lessons when you have to look at what you've done," said the openside flanker, who led the squad for eight matches during the 2005-06 run. "What it came down to was that early on in the game we didn't have a lot of the ball and every time we got it, we gave it back and put ourselves under pressure.

"We had opportunities but we stuffed up a few set pieces when we had a chance to take the game by the scruff of the neck and we didn't do that."

McCaw's clarity of thought allows him those extra moments in the melee of Test rugby to make the right decisions at the right time. If decisiveness is his greatest asset as a leader, then the fact that he leads by example is his most inspirational trait as a player.

McCaw has led out his side on 53 occasions to become the most successful All Black captain of all time. For Kieran Read, the No 8 who plays alongside McCaw, he is still growing within the role.

"Richie takes control a lot now," said Read, 26, who many consider to be the heir-apparent to the job. "He puts it out there every time and leads by example. The respect was always there, but he now knows what to say and when to say it."

Read was one of three players, including McCaw and Conrad Smith, who did not play for their region during the hiatus at the end of the Tri Nations, and despite a six-week holiday he topped the tackle count for his side in the Hong Kong match.

Read's increased work rate highlights how quickly the game has changed since the International Rugby Board (IRB) re-interpreted the laws earlier this year. With a tackler no longer allowed to contest the contact area until he has released the tackled player, Read has had to adapt his game alongside his captain to ensure the team keep as much possession as possible.

"You've got to work pretty closely as a loose-forward trio," Read said. "I just try to stay near Richie and clear up the scraps to help him out. It's great to work with him; he's the best in the world, so if you just follow him you're going to be not bad yourself."

The IRB on Monday released statistics to illustrate how much of an impact the law tweaks have had on the game. This season's Tri Nations barely resembled any of the 15 previous tournaments. Kicking from hand was down nearly 40 per cent on last year, while the 52 tries that were scored, at an average of 5.8 per match, made for the second-highest figure in the tournament's history.

"The game has definitely changed in the last five months," said Dan Carter, the All Blacks' star fly-half. "To keep the ball in hand gives you a lot more advantages. It gives you a lot more confidence to attack from your own half instead of relying on a kicking game.

"It's the kind of rugby that we grew up loving to play in New Zealand and I guess it has shown in some of our results this year."

And those words could well hold the key to New Zealand's consistent failure to land the greatest prize of all. They scored the most tries to win the Tri Nations this season, and they haven't conceded a try in Europe since Yannick Jauzion crossed in the 69th minute during the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final. The All Black model, however, may be too flashy and fun to secure the next World Cup, a tournament they are hosting next year.

"Rugby World Cup is different to Test matches in that it becomes a bit of an arm-wrestle," Carter said. "It will be interesting to see if next year's World Cup is the same. Obviously, the referees leading into it will want to ref the new interpretations and keep an open and attractive style of rugby, but we all know that World Cup games are a lot tighter, and it is something that we have to address as a team."

England have gained a grudging admiration in the southern hemisphere since they defeated the Wallabies 21-20 in Stadium Australia in June. That display highlighted that Martin Johnson's side could attack with purpose, and that England were not a one-dimensional, forward-orientated team. And despite England's capacity to spread the ball wide, Carter would prefer his side to get involved in a tight tussle similar to that which England's defence coach Mike Ford and Johnson have promised this week.

"It wouldn't be too bad if that happened to us," he said. "The game in Christchurch against Australia was really tight," he added, referring to a 20-10 victory, "especially the second half which was a huge arm-wrestle. It was really close and we had to play for position and territory a lot more. It shows that we have come through close games like that."

With Carter lying just 51 points behind Jonny Wilkinson in the all-time points-scorer list, there is a real possibility that he could edge ahead of England's injured fly-half while in Europe. Although it is not something that motivates the Canterbury Crusader, he hinted that after his recent ankle surgery the best is yet to come.

"It was pretty frustrating playing with cortisone injections. I think in the long term next year there will be some real advantages of having had the operation. I'm probably not as fit as I should be at the moment but I am sure to reap the benefits over the next few months to a year."

It is here that it is easier to understand what taking each day as it comes means to any sportsman. New Zealand saw a record sequence ahead of them and slipped up on something right in front of their noses. Given the effort and catharsis that has gone on in London this past week, a second defeat in a row would be unthinkable for the New Zealand public.

As young Boric outlined, however, another loss would be immaterial compared to the sense of public soul-searching that would follow another World Cup failure.

"We try not to talk about the World Cup too much, but we have covered it because it is so important and is all over the tabloids non-stop," he said. "In the big scheme of things these games in Europe are not really important, but they are important for our confidence going forward."

When it comes to rugby in New Zealand now, confidence is everything. Unless, of course, it is misplaced.