New Zealand rugby has choked all over the oval planet -- and now comes a chance to collapse at home, as the All Blacks kick off the World Cup against Tonga on Friday. To rewind, "choked" is such a pejorative term that one hesitates to use it, especially in relation to men who display huge physical courage, but the phrase now dominates the build-up to one of sport's most enjoyable festivals.
"Rugby's what we are," a television newsreader apparently told the nation. But the All Blacks have come up short in five successive tournaments, despite being the Brazil of the 15-man game. The more they fail, the more New Zealand rugby is locked into an introspective cycle in which everything from the haka to commercialism to the role of the kiwi farmer in national life is endlessly picked over.
It's in the late knock-out games where the All Blacks implode. Instinct says their problem is not thinking too little about how to close out these matches but thinking too much. Spontaneity is at the heart of the game on the host islands. But in World Cups they go tense, tight, maybe because they are taking themselves way too seriously.
For many England fans, the omission of Frank Lampard in Sofia on Friday night laid to rest the era Gary Neville was referring to when he called his international career "a massive waste of time". All the years of trying to solve the cosmic conundrum of how to use Lampard and Steven Gerrard in a single midfield seemed to fall away as energy and cheeriness returned.
This is an extrapolation too far -- because Lampard was not left out of the team who beat Bulgaria 3-0 for symbolic purposes. Fabio Capello had been even more insistent than usual that "form" would determine his line-up.
Lampard, after a long struggle against injury, is still groping for his old dynamism. But some of the familiar fatalism and ennui are lifting from this England side as Capello tests a formation that evokes Manchester City.
Six players to protect one goal, four to attack the other: this looks a winning system, because with Scott Parker and Gareth Barry to guard the defence (with a natural left-right balance) the front four can be granted a self-expression licence, as they were in Arsene Wenger's best Arsenal sides and are now at City, where Roberto Mancini can station Nigel de Jong, Barry, Yaya Toure and maybe even Owen Hargreaves in defensive midfield roles.
So for England against Wales on Tuesday night, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Stewart Downing and Theo Walcott can again be the freedom quartet, just as David Silva, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero are for City.
Finally Capello has embraced the last World Cup's most popular arrangement: 4-2-3-1, instead of the Anglo-Saxon hair shirt of 4-4-2, which encourages players to advance in infantry lines. Young, Downing and Walcott are all trained in wing-play and even Rooney can raid the flanks. So along with liberty comes width and pace.
Serene in September, jaded in June: this is England's pattern. All the best qualifying results come early in the Premier League campaign. If World Cups were autumn affairs, so the logic goes, England would be dashing about like seven-year-olds at playtime.
In reality, the "fatigue" defence is a bad case of the facts being bent to fit the story. Tiredness is an excuse, more than an explanation, however intense the English club campaign. As Neville asserts in his autobiography, Red, his generation developed a sense of impending doom in tournaments.
This takes us back to the Rob Green howler against USA in England's opening World Cup match in South Africa. From that moment, a member of Capello's back-room staff confided recently, too many England players thought: here we go again.
After the Bloemfontein debacle (Germany 4, England 1) many Englishmen felt there could be no cultural revolution until Capello or AN Other cut away the near-miss years and many of the players who had been caught up in it.
Neville paints a picture of players in the brace position, knowing they would go out in some quarter-final mega-drama and return home to vilification and ridicule.
How, you might ask, has the modern multi-millionaire footballer become so hypersensitive, so cowed by his audience? But there is another side to this cringing, which Neville articulates. If you keep going out in big knock-out games or not even qualifying (as with Euro 2008), you are entitled to think your country's football is simply not good enough to survive against Argentina, Brazil, Portugal or Germany: all big-tournament victors against England sides at or since France 98.
As one teenage observer remarked of the win in Bulgaria, England have come over as a team of "depressed old men" trudging through the perennial cycle of expectation and calamity. Lampard and Gerrard played with clenched expressions. They were not to blame for England's technical and tactical flaws. On the contrary, they stuck at it through the boom and bust years, and deserve high marks for perseverance.
Yet there had to be a scene-shift. England's malaise was partly psychological. Rooney, for his own reasons, was in a funk for most of last year, but now looks euphoric (could it be the hair?). Walcott has been caught in the Arsenal maelstrom, but worked hard in training to impress Capello and received his reward in Bulgaria. And Young is thriving on the extra pressure that playing for Manchester United entails. Along with Rooney, he can attack right across the forward line, even as a withdrawn striker.
In their worst phases, England have been slow, wooden, complacent and anti-meritocratic. Now they can call on players who are still in the process of establishing themselves as international or A-list names: Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Walcott and Young. Behind them sit Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones.
Even Downing, who seems to have been trying forever, remains in the business of having a point to prove, with his move to Liverpool. Parker, too, is still on trial in the holding role.
So there is a preponderance now of players who want to play for England, who refuse to be weighed down by history, and can prosper in a side where speed, thrust and ingenuity might actually be rewarded. Capello didn't plan for this. He was Mr Micawber. But something turned up.
Sunday Indo Sport