Dark Days

It’s been a long week.

It all started about 25 minutes into the second half last Sunday morning, when Daniel Carter went off injured and the TV pictures showed the look of absolute fear in his eyes. I sunk back into my chair. From then on in it all seemed to have an air of inevitability about it.

Four more years, boys!

Once again we’ve collectively decided to find an external scape goat. In ’95 it was Suzy the mysterious (and malicious) waitress. This time around it’s the referee Wayne Barnes.

Sure, he didn’t have a great game. But, it’s rubbish to blame him entirely for the result.

Luke McAlister didn’t deserve to be sent off. But great teams deal with situations like that and get on with it. Remember when England were reduced to 13 men by a whistle-happy ref in Wellington in 2003? They dug deep and held on. The All Blacks did that too on Sunday morning … for 8 1/2 minutes. It wasn’t enough. (I also wonder if ithe whole thing wasn’t still playing on Luke’s mind when he lined up the conversion to Rodney So’oialo’s try?)

The pass to Michalak was clearly forward too. But, when I played at school we were always taught to play the ball rather than wait for the whistle. Was the pass so forward that it helped Jauzion to avoid the tacklers who should have been all over him? And, players aside, if anybody is taking heat for this it should be the touch judge Jonathan Kaplan (from South Africa … now there’s a conspiracy theory waiting to be uncovered!)

Whatever though … if it makes you feel better, believe that Wayne Barnes was the only thing between us and a deserved victory.

Graham Henry’s planning has also been given the retrospective thumbs-down. I suppose that is inevitable. By definition a successful strategy is one that works. The criticism would be more credible if it had been made before the outcome was known.

Of course, everybody now believes that they always thought it was a bad idea to rest players during the Super 14. But I remember being pretty bloody glad about it when Chris Jack was injured and James Ryan and Jason Eaton were ruled out entirely. I could hardly watch the warm-up test matches earlier in the year or the pool matches earlier in the tournament for fear that Richie McCaw or Jerry Collins et al would break a leg or something.

And, in the name of developing better combinations we all always believed that the 1st XV should play every test, didn’t we? God only knows how Nick Evans or Luke McAlister would have gone at first-five when Dan Carter went off had that happened, or how Andrew Hore, the third choice hooker, would have measured up to the French tight-five given that Kevin Mealamu was unavailable.

So, if not the ref or the coach, who is to blame?

Obviously the players in the first instance. But, I think that in a strange way we bring it on ourselves too … all of us who care.

We all got a little ahead of ourselves.

In the lead-up to the Cup the players talked of needing to win three games in a row. The assumption clearly was that we’d play in all three.

I don’t think anybody, including those on the field, really expected to be playing France in Cardiff. It was supposed to be Ireland or Argentina (two teams we’ve never lost to). It wasn’t supposed to be that tough.

Where was Kapo o Pango? We were saving that for the semi or final were we?

We all got a bit arrogant, and forgot that we have to earn results. That we’re the best team in the world going by past results and rankings counts for no points at all on the scoreboard. It just makes the oppositions victory all the more glorious when it’s achieved.

The reality is that there are five teams who are likely to win a Rugby World Cup: the four that have previously won one and France. If Argentina can knock over South Africa this weekend then they will deserve to be added to this list as a sixth, but that’s a big ask.

Prior to last weekend we were the only one of those five countries who hadn’t previously been knocked out in a quarter-final. Our win against South Africa in 2003 was the only other time we’ve come up against one of the top five in a quarter-final. (Interestingly the last three winners of the World Cup were knocked out in the quarter-finals in the World Cup prior to the one they won, and South Africa, who must now be favourite to win this one, was knocked out in the quarter-finals in 2003 by us, so there is a pattern threatening to develop there. Perhaps NZ v Australia in 2011 eh?)

Here are our results against these top five teams in previous World Cup matches:

  • 1987: v France in the final – won 29-9
  • 1991: v England in pool play – won 18-12
  • 1991: v Australia in the semi-finals – lost 16-6
  • 1995: v England in the semi-finals – won 45-29
  • 1995: v South Africa in the finals – lost 15-12 in extra-time
  • 1999: v England in pool play – won 30-16
  • 1999: v France in the semi-finals – lost 43-31
  • 2003: v South Africa in the quarter-finals – won 29-9
  • 2003: v Australia in the semi-finals – lost 22-10

So, 5 wins & 4 losses (3 wins & 4 losses in knock-out situations).

Including last Sunday’s result makes it 5 wins & 5 losses. Hardly the basis for the overwhelming confidence we all felt leading into the tournament.

What’s the definition of arrogance?

In fact all five teams are surprisingly even when compared this way:

  • Australia: 7 wins & 4 losses
  • England: 5 wins & 6 losses
  • South Africa: 4 wins & 3 losses
  • France: 2 wins & 5 losses

Australia is the best of the bunch, with their two World Cup victories. France is the worst, their only two wins are at our expense, and they are the only one of the five yet to win the Cup (I honestly hope will win this one … if for nothing else, to prevent South Africa or England winning another!).

At least one of those teams is going to lose again in the next 24 hours.

We all expect the All Blacks to win every game. If Graham Henry had taken a second-rate All Blacks team to France and gotten thumped prior to the World Cup then we wouldn’t have let any of them back in the country. No such problems for Bernard Laporte it seems – they made him Minister of Sport!

The problem is our expectations are just not based on reality.

And, in the heat of battle they surely weigh a bloke down, no?

I can’t help but think the complete lack of composure and loss of structure the All Blacks suffered in the final 20 minutes wasn’t in some way all of our fault.

8 thoughts on “Dark Days”

  1. Spot on comment. Pretty much what I have been thinking. I think the fact of the matter is, we just simply aren’t as good as we would believe. I think the fact we *are* the All Blacks too doesn’t help. We tend to get “over reffed” in the big occasions.

    We are great at playing within the bounds of our abilities, but I think at times we win too easily, we don’t have the ability to call on tight situations from the past, or a bit of flair and passion. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but I think in the cold hard light of day, it’s true.

    Look at the times in the last 3 or 4 years we have lost, it’s usually when our brilliance has been blunted, and we’ve needed to do something special, maybe outside the square to win, we generally haven’t had the ability to do so.

    I think the way forward, is the way back. Play a rugged 8 man mongrel game and beat the opposition into submission. Get the forwards out of the back line, pummel the opposition and let the backs loose only when they opposition is down for the count.

    Might not be pretty, but do we want to look good, or win when it counts. I know which one I want.

  2. first time i’ve seen the comment made publicly on the look of fear in dan carter’s eyes – i noticed that too, and took it to be very imporntant – didn’t look like re-injury that he was worried about, looked like a man who had just been absolutely monstered by a vicious opposition. i daresay that there was a fair bit going on whenever he got taken to ground in the tackle – for all the punt-kicking, he also got trapped into the maul a fair few times, and he turned over the ball the first 2 times… and, of course, all of the AB’s would have been copping it…

    so, yeah “play a rugged 8 man mongrel game and beat the opposition into submission. Get the forwards out of the back line, pummel the opposition and let the backs loose only when they opposition is down for the count”…

    but, sudden-death rugby, 10 minutes left, behind by 2 points, win by any means possible – 1 point will do, camped in the opposition half for most of that 10 minutes… you know what i’m going to say next…

  3. I’ve had time to relax now and I think we have a problem that no one has yet talked about. We just cannot hold onto our older more experienced players who are taking off to Europe. The combined challenge those players would give younger players in local competition plus the odd one who would add to the strength of the team itself is getting too big to ignore. Both England and France proved how useful it is to have older heads on the field. It continues after this RWC where we’ll lose the bulk of the team and a bunch of younger players as well. The fact is there are guys in Europe who would have legitimately challenged to make the AB’s and we may need to seriously consider choosing from Europe, in particular when it comes to the forwards and even some of the backs. We can’t just keep cutting the head off the team and expecting it to grow up into an oak. Guys like Chris Jack, and Carl Hayman are not so easy to replace. You also don’t get better playing against opponents who are worse than you and the fact is that the European club competition is now (and has for some time) featuring players who are the equal of anyone in Super 14 physically (except for pace perhaps) but stronger in experience. The NZRFU need to buy a club up there quick smart, there are a bunch of benefits now including having a base of players to choose from for the AB’s. Four years from now it would be nice to still be able to choose from guys like Collins, Jack, Hayman, etc, etc. They’ll be better then than they are now, but the way we are looking we won’t be able to unless we try and force them into returning here.

  4. I’m not normally a rugby follower but happened to watch the game, funnily enough I then watched Fiji’s last game and was more upset that they lost (Sorry I know that’s probably cause for hanging in NZ).
    There’s just something that little bit more rewarding about watching the underdogs rise up the the challenge. NZ is by no means an underdog in rugby… that was clear by our nation’s arrogance before the world cup. I don’t really have a point other than wondering how to bring back that spirit that the Fijians so clearly had that we appear to have lost.

  5. It’s funny hearing people say… “we lost the World Cup again”. I thought you could only lose something if at first you had it in your possession? I know it’s been said alot, but we haven’t won it for 20 years. We ‘lost’ it in 1991 sure, as we were the holders for four years from 1987. Since then we’ve either a) failed to win it (final 1995) or b) failed to even have a chance of trying to win it (semi’s 1991, 1999, 2003, …. quarters 2007). I’ll be honest, I find myself taking much more notice of the All Whites/Phoenix now.

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