Saturday 25 November 2017

New Zealand have been hot favourites for the World Cup before and flopped

New Zealand have been hot favourites for theWorld Cup before and flopped. In Auckland,Winston Aldworth has a familiar sinking feeling

If, as they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then this year I'm compos mentis.

After 24 years of approaching Rugby World Cup competitions in a spirit of optimism, I've realised that expecting a knockout-round humbling for the All Blacks is the only protection against misery for a Kiwi rugby fan.

1987 has become to New Zealand rugby what 1966 is to English soccer. For Bobby Moore hoisted on team-mates' shoulders we've got a lovely photo of wee David Kirk holding the Webb Ellis Cup with his mates behind him in composed, soft-focus bliss.

It's a stirring memory. But in a nation where All Black success is considered the birthright of every fan, there's no escaping the fact that our last taste of World Cup glory came when mullets ruled the Earth.

In our regular disappointments every four years, there can be solace in the circumstances of defeat. Indeed it always takes something special to beat the All Blacks -- and more so at the World Cup.

The French comeback at Twickenham in 1999 is rightly regarded as one of the most astonishing turnarounds in modern sport. Well, bravo mes amis.

And there was that business in South Africa in 1995 -- the unification of a community putting aside a history of oppression to forge a collective spirit built around tolerance and reconciliation. Mmm, we're happy for you guys -- really.

But at the risk of sounding churlish, it's no fun seeing your sporting heroes -- who were a bit crook on the day but ultimately out-tackled -- turn into the villains in a Clint Eastwood movie. Us, the villains? They're the Springboks, for crying out loud!

New Zealand's selectors have always drawn their teams from the deepest well of talent in world rugby. You might think that would be a good thing but while opponents get good at making do with whatever talent they can scramble together, All Black bosses of recent World Cup competitions have fallen into an awkward mess trying to get all of the talent available to them out on the field.

This is how, in 1999, John Hart shifted the world's best full-back, Christian Cullen, into the midfield. Cullen's move to centre opened room for Jeff Wilson to shift from wing to full-back, with Tana Umaga (who, naturally, finished his career as a fine centre) coming into the side on the wing.

New Zealanders are an insular mob when it comes to rugby. We don't like to take advice from abroad on how to play the game we consider our own. And yet, looking at England's World Cup-winning side of 2003 and the Springboks of 2007, it's hard not to envy the certainty of selection.

Clive Woodward could pretty much have named his starting line-up for the 2003 final as he chewed over Christmas dinner in 2002.

Conversely, the team Graham Henry sends out on the field this morning to start the Tri-Nations campaign against South Africa has only five players who featured in last year's Tri-Nations opener.

And it's a reasonable bet that the All Black team that takes the field in the first knock-out match at the World Cup (yes, we can at least take that for granted) will carry a similar number of changes.

Henry rarely names the same line-up twice in a row. Key players are automatic selections -- no sane coach would leave out Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw or Mils Muliaina.

But away from the certainties, Henry has developed a habit of flitting between players. Last week, Liam Messam was the perfect loose-forward cover, today Adam Thompson gets the nod. No one's sure what happened to last year's Victor Vito.

The more the names change, the more the doubt stays the same. They're all good players -- Messam, Thompson and Vito would walk into most other sides at the World Cup.

But the constant selection changes leave the public dreading a lack of cohesion and understanding when the heat goes on in the knock-out stages. Around about the time when people choke.

An inability to pick through a treasure trove of players is far from New Zealand's only World Cup foible -- we've still got a pathological aversion to drop-goals.

Never mind that the finals of 1995 and 2003 were decided by the dull thud of a well-executed three pointer. Or that John Eales' pragmatic Wallabies reached the 1999 final courtesy of a drop-goal.

Not for us, thanks. The All Blacks have landed just 12 drop-goals in Test matches in the professional era. Jonny Wilkinson landed 13 on his own... in the calendar year of 2003.

Henry says drop-goals are back on the menu. With late kick-offs during the World Cup, the All Black coach acknowledges the beauty of winning ugly.

"It's a good word that, winning 'ugly'," he said. "There are things we can add to our game, and are going to add to what we do on the field, that can hopefully keep us a step ahead.

different

"The game we play in 2011 is going to be different to what we did in 2010. If that means winning ugly, that means winning ugly."

He's had Carter working on drop-goals but, with a national mindset geared away from the requisite build-up play that positioned Wilkinson so well in 2003, we're unlikely to change our spots so swiftly.

Some worry that Henry's reign has gone on too long; that his crop of All Blacks are fading. Writing in the 'New Zealand Herald', Chris Rattue saw a worrying trend in the Canterbury Crusaders' loss to the Queensland Reds in the Super 15 final.

"If you were drawing a graph, the Australian worm would be rising quite steeply and the New Zealand one falling slightly," he wrote. "Whether they cross paths this year may determine the World Cup outcome although the mercurial French and the power games of South Africa and England could blow both away.

"The Super 15 final confirmed that key All Blacks -- Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Brad Thorn -- are on a downslope."

Even with the formidable advantage of their side playing at home, All Black followers have seen too many awful upsets to take anything for granted. After 24 years of outlandish defeats, the prudent fan simply braces for the worst by assuming it's as good as happened.

For some, even winning this year wouldn't be good enough. Victory in the final on October 23 would merely confirm the All Blacks as flat-track bullies who only win at home.

I'd take that. But it won't happen.

New Zealand v South Africa,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 8.35am

Irish Independent

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