New Zealand looking to convert good anger into pure bliss of final deliverance
Graham Henry's men must banish any idea of choking on big stage, writes Eddie Butler
Israel Dagg calls it his "good anger". It's the conversion of all the baggage of the past 24 years, the hopes of the past seven weeks, the pressure of the past seven days and the nerves of one long day into a positive force when the seventh World Cup final kicks off this morning.
The management of the sporting mind on such a day is a little more complicated than it may seem. How can it ever be that lethargy may seize your limbs at the very moment they are programmed to give you the ride of your life?
Beneath what is going on in the top three inches of the All Blacks, there are bodies to be nursed one more time into action. As Graham Henry pointed out on Friday when he announced an unchanged New Zealand starting team, with only Adam Thomson taking a place on the bench instead of Victor Vito, 12 matches in 14 weeks -- the Tri-Nations plus the World Cup -- have already placed unprecedented strains on the Kiwi anatomy.
The All Black coach has had a quite brilliant World Cup. 'Ted', as Henry is known in Auckland, has taken the sting of his sarcasm and put a rubber tip on it. He jabs and nobody is hurt. "Good morning," he said on Friday.
"Good morning, Mr President," was the affectionate response.
He has rediscovered the art of communication, which he lost for a while on the Lions tour of 2001 and in the Wales changing room after that.
And what will he be saying here to the team he obviously adores on this, their greatest day? Nothing.
"I don't talk. Sunday night is their time. Other people talking at that moment is useless, a distraction."
And so it is up to the players to find the blend that works: the inner calm, the music and the silence and the embrace; the clatter of studs on a hard floor, the roar of 60,000 and the haka. And not freeze. Let's use the c-word: and not choke.
It remains a possibility. The sum of the All Black pack is greater than their parts. Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Owen Franks will have nothing more than parity at the scrum, and the All Black lineout may even be shaded by Lionel Nallet and Julien Bonnaire, but where New Zealand are supreme is at the breakdown.
And for them to be ferociously effective, they need to keep their wits about them. At their best, they work out in a flash precisely how many to slam into the breakdown, how many to withdraw. At the merest sniff of a turnover they revise that plan and readjust their numbers. It requires athleticism and co-ordination and composure.
There is no reason to suppose that the back row of Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read, playing together for a record 21st time, are about to see their "good anger" dissolve, but it remains a possibility because the All Blacks are in a new place and nobody can say for sure what will happen. The mysteries of sport, and all that.
And I suppose it could be said that the All Blacks do not have the most reassuringly composed half-backs in the world. If anyone is going to lose his rag on the big night it is Piri Weepu. He is complimented nowadays for his chill around the camp, but the way he leads the haka is an echo of his more eruptive personality.
The scrumhalf is full of tricks that can unlock the French -- he has a kicking game from hand that defies a conventional defence -- and yet he is never far from being dragged down to a level where his skills give way to fractiousness. Can his new indispensability cope with all the passing, the cajoling, the place-kicking and acting as nurse-maid to Aaron Cruden, who is impish in his own right, but who four weeks ago was more a skateboarder in Palmerston North than an All Black first five-eighth at the World Cup final in Auckland?
Morgan Parra, opposite Cruden, may be even less experienced at 10, but he is an accomplished, technically correct tackler, and quite a nasty piece of work (meant purely as a compliment) as an irritant, an opponent who can get under your skin and disrupt.
Conrad Smith, the one player who will remain calm no matter how hard the French storm blows, is a long way at outside-centre from the core of the furnace. If the flames pull the All Blacks in, Ma'a Nonu won't be pausing for thought and responding to a quiet word of advice from Conrad. Don't react, Ma'a . . . oh, you have.
Making Ma'a a model citizen has been one of Henry's triumphs, but this is a game like no other and France are no mugs when it comes to decomposition, one of those words, like disruption, that could be a euphemism for something far darker.
And just say, for the purposes of painting a bleak scenario, that the rhythm of the All Blacks is successfully jolted by France, then the magical back three of Richard Kahui, Cory Jane and Dagg will try perhaps to force the issue of their involvement. Push for inclusion when safety-first is the only viable option.
Just imagine if Jane drops the first high ball and is clattered; that Dagg sets off on one of those effortless one-on-ones and, instead of beating the first tackler, is grounded in an isolated area; that Kahui is exposed for the first time for his lack of searing pace.
It could happen, but surely it won't. This is a New Zealand day for inspiration, isn't it, rather than decomposition? Woodcock and Brad Thorn and McCaw and Kaino are about as unflappable as you will find in the admittedly wacky world of self-management on a sporting day such as this.
Piri will keep a lid on his temper and Conrad will steer Aaron and Ma'a down the avenues of the righteous. And Israel, Cory and Richard will patiently wait their turn and purr only when the fire of their making is laid and the cushion placed perfectly for them.
If one of them is to be disappointed it is only at the moment of being replaced by Sonny Bill Williams as the super-sub comes on to apply the finishing touch to a consummate performance by the best team at the World Cup by a considerable distance.
And the c-word is banished.
Sunday Indo Sport