Paul Thomas

Eyes on the ball

Oct 29, 2015 | Sports

In November 2013, when the All Blacks were in London preparing to play England, a Daily Telegraph journalist exploited lax security to sneak into the hotel room where team meetings were held.

It was a high-risk gambit – if he’d run into the substantial figure of All Black coach and former police officer Steve Hansen, the journalist would have exited the hotel at high speed, with a flea in his ear and perhaps a boot up his backside. But it paid off: inscribed on the whiteboard in the centre of the room was the boast, “We are the most dominant team in the history of the world.”

The Telegraph, and the rest of Fleet St which was obliged to play catch-up, largely resisted the temptation to have fun with this discovery, interpreting it as a “chilling” measure of the All Blacks’ self-belief and ambition rather than hubris or definitive proof that they’d succumbed to a serious case of taking themselves too seriously.

As extravagant as the claim might appear, it wasn’t without substance. The All Blacks were the current World Cup holders and had lost just one of their previous 32 games – to England a year earlier, a comeuppance that would be re-paid within days.

When England coach Stuart Lancaster was asked for his reaction, he pointed out that, unlike most World Cup winners, the All Blacks were world champions in more than name only: “When teams win a World Cup, they traditionally take a dip, maybe rest on their laurels, but [the All Blacks] have managed to retain the hunger and desire to keep winning. In world sport could you tell me a team that has a record like that internationally?”

Almost two years on nothing has changed. The All Blacks continue to defy the sporting axiom that staying at the top is harder than getting there. Since winning the 2011 World Cup, the Hansen-coached, Richie McCaw led All Blacks have won 42 and drawn two of their 47 matches, in the process cementing their number one world ranking, maintaining an iron hold on the Bledisloe Cup and dominating the Rugby Championship. (This year’s truncated version won by Australia doesn’t really count: the All Blacks’ only home game was against the weakest side, Argentina; the Wallabies’ only away game was against the same opposition.)

Few people would have the time, inclination or breadth of knowledge to test thoroughly the proposition that they are the most dominant team in the history of the world; given that competitive team sport is a comparatively recent development, it’s a rather grandiose claim anyway. But should the All Blacks win the World Cup which begins in London on September 18 when hosts England take on Fiji, they will have an irresistible claim to being the greatest rugby team of all time.

They would become the first All Black team to win a World Cup away from home and the first team ever to win back to back World Cups. What’s more, they will have maintained their dominance during the intervening years which involves pulling off the rare feat of regenerating with barely a blip in performance or outcomes.

It would secure McCaw’s status as the greatest player and captain the game has ever seen and confirm Hansen in the coaching pantheon, putting paid to any lingering suggestion that he’s a pale imitation of his predecessor Graham Henry, a company man who was gifted the keys to the boardroom in the giddy aftermath of the 2011 triumph.

It would also silence jibes which, despite being contradictory, are frequently made in the same breath: that the All Blacks peak between World Cups and choke at them. Perhaps one should say “hopefully silence” since claiming the cup in 2011 didn’t have that effect: some pundits, who appear to be hard-wired to look on the dark side, accuse them of choking even when they win.

And it would go a long way towards aligning the All Blacks’ World Cup record with their overall record which would be as satisfying for their supporters as it would be unpalatable for those who have used the former to diminish the latter.

But it won’t be easy. Teams are forever reminding themselves to focus on what they can control rather than expend mental energy worrying about things they can’t control. That’s fine in theory but not so easy in practice, especially at major tournaments when so much of what happens is beyond their control.

Selection is a crucial component that is within their control. The intense debate both before and after the announcement of the 31 man squad rather blurred the reality that only a handful of spots were up for grabs: most amateur selectors who had a stab at picking the team would have been close to 90% right.

That was partly because the process has been methodical, partly because the selectors weren’t as spoilt for choice as some of the more breathless claims about New Zealand rugby’s “unparalleled” depth would have us believe. You’d expect there to be intense competition in the world’s leading rugby nation but suggestions a team of rejects would have a good shot at winning the World Cup are delusional. Indeed, in the tight forward area New Zealand has less depth than several of its rivals.

But it is a powerful squad, especially if some of the big names who’ve been below their best so far this year – Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Julian Savea and Sonny Bill Williams, for instance – really hit their straps.

The selectors have emphatically adhered to the conventional wisdom that experience wins World Cups. According to former Springbok coach Jake White, the desirable formula for a winning XV is 40 caps apiece providing a combined experience of 600 test caps. (It worked for White in 2007.)

Hansen has made White look positively reckless: the likely All Black starting line-up will boast a combined tally of more than 1,000 caps or an average of around 66. Apart from the new boys Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo who’ll fight it out for the right wing birth, the least-experienced of the other 14 players will have 30 caps.

As always in sport, though, your strength can also be a weakness: go overboard on experience and you run the risk of having too many old legs, too many slightly weary campaigners with not much to prove who lack the mental and physical wherewithal to squeeze another drop of juice out of themselves when the going gets tough.

Before the 1995 World Cup I asked Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer whether his squad, which included a number of veterans of Australia’s successful 1991 campaign, had the requisite hunger and drive to get over the line again. The ever-forthright Dwyer replied, “I don’t know. I won’t know till we get underway.” (They didn’t.)

Age is another indicator. In the professional era the average age of World Cup winning teams has been in the late twenties. The likely All Black team averages 29. McCaw and Tony Woodcock are 34, Dan Carter, Ma‘a Nonu and Conrad Smith 33 and Kaino 32. Assuming that energy and enthusiasm won’t be an issue for the other nine who are 29 or younger, it’s reasonable to suggest the All Blacks’ success or otherwise will hinge on how strongly the old guard finish their stellar international careers. There are promising signs: Nonu is in the form of his life; McCaw just keeps churning out high quality performances and Carter had his best test match for several years against the Wallabies at Eden Park last month.

The All Blacks also pass the talent test. The formula here is the ratio of “world class” players in the team but when that term is bestowed on men who’ve hardly played international rugby, as happens increasingly often, it becomes meaningless. Suffice to say the All Blacks have more players with a credible claim to being the best in the world in their specialist positions than any other country.

Off-field behaviour and the team environment are other controllable factors, although the evidence here isn’t conclusive. Israel Dagg and Cory Jane went briefly off the reservation during the 2011 campaign but the subsequent arctic blast of disdain from their teammates galvanised them into performing outstandingly thereafter. Meanwhile the French players’ relationship with coach Marc Lievremont was descending through the irreconcilable differences stage into mutual loathing, but they still came awfully close to turning Aotearoa into the land of the long dark cloud. On the other hand, England’s campaign went from hiccup to train wreck in the blink of an eye after a few players tried their hands at dwarf-tossing and veteran centre Mike Tindall was captured on CCTV with his misshapen nose in the cleavage of someone other than his wife who happens to be 16th in line of succession to the British throne.

The chief uncontrollable is of course the opposition or, to put it in terms Kiwis can painfully relate to, an opponent turning out to be a lot better than we thought they were. The notion that this will be the hardest ever World Cup is rapidly assuming the status of a given, although it’s not clear that things will be all that different this time around. Apart from the first tournament in 1987 when the All Blacks were in a class of their own, there have always been at least five teams capable of winning the cup. This time there are probably seven, but three - Australia, England and Wales - are in the same pool (which journalistic tradition obliges me to call the “Pool of Death”) meaning one won’t progress to the quarter-finals.

There’s the luck of the draw. If you get a favourable draw and other results fall your way, you might not have to beat the most highly favoured teams to win the tournament. Australia in 1999, England in 2003 and South Africa in 2007 all won without having to overcome the All Blacks. France, the only one of the big five nations not to have won a World Cup, has made three finals but two were against New Zealand in New Zealand.

There’s refereeing. Eccentric and/or fallible refereeing performances that significantly disadvantaged one side have shaped the outcome of three tournaments. Disconcertingly, two of the referees in question were New Zealanders although to their credit both owned up to having lost the plot. A refereeing controversy also produced the most jaw-dropping moment in the entire history of the tournament: Welshman Derek Bevan disallowed a try in a 1995 semi-final that almost certainly would’ve put France into the final at host nation South Africa’s expense. At the official dinner following the final in which the Springboks beat the All Blacks in extra time, South African rugby boss and arch-Boer/boor Louis Luyt described Bevan as “the most wonderful referee in the world” and tried to present him with a $2,000 gold watch. Bevan left the room, joining the All Blacks who’d already walked out in protest at Luyt’s assertion that the Springboks were the first “true” world champions since previous tournaments had taken place without them.

It’s tempting to believe that it’s the All Blacks’ destiny to win this time. The view that it would be a perfect and appropriate way for McCaw and the other greats to round off their remarkable careers and a fitting end to an extraordinary era isn’t entirely confined to this country. But deserving will have nothing to do with it and sport has precious few happy endings.

Think of Daniel Vettori for whom victory in the Cricket World Cup final would have been a dream ending to his 18 year international career and sweet reward for coaxing one last campaign out of a body that had seemed broken beyond repair. The Aussies showed how little they cared about all that by giving him a gloating send off when he was dismissed.

But if anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s these All Blacks. And if anyone can make it happen, it’s them.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.