Rowan Simpson

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:

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 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.