From guest writer Ahmad
The All Blacks aren’t going to win the Rugby World Cup.
These words strike fear and anxiety into much of the New Zealand population, totally out of proportion to what is at stake here. It’s a trophy. One of two in fact, as the IRB have confirmed. And at the end of the day it’s just a rugby game of two halves where the sport was the winner and the team that ended up with more points than the other deserves full credit.
After 24 long years I’d have expected us to have matured and learned a few lessons. Some have, but it’s obvious that many haven’t and still have a strange unhealthy mentality ingrained within them.
Last night as Argentina fought bravely against our beloved All Blacks, blood pressures around the country elevated as the unthinkable started to become thunk. Could the All Blacks really be bailed out at the Quarter-Final stages in a repeat of the worst ever Rugby World Cup performance of 2007?
Let us look at what triggered this hysteria. Were the Argentineans out to a surprise 20 point lead? Did the All Blacks need to score twice in the last 5 minutes to avoid embarrassment? No – it was simply that the All Blacks weren’t thumping the Argies with the game 30 minutes old. This resulted in terrible memories being retrieved from long-term storage areas of the brain as we relived our nightmares from 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2007. So overwhelmed by our anxieties we could not assess the situation rationally and give Argentina credit for doing what most teams facing the All Blacks have been able to do historically – play with gusto and some parity for the first 60 minutes before generally fading away in the final 10-20 minutes.
Of course I’m writing this with the benefit of hindsight, and the semi-final berth in the bag, but I couldn’t help but feel bemused as the Twitter “worm” turned from a sense of expectation of an easy win, to an irrational fear that because we couldn’t dominant the first 30 minutes of an 80 minute game, we would be bailed out of the tournament on home soil. It’s the same kind of black and white thinking that has plagued All Black fans for years, and has been no different this year if we look back and examine our RWC 2011 build-up.
Super Rugby form of the New Zealand teams has lately become the first measure by which the hopes of the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup is measured. I’m not entirely sure why this is but it seems that many would extrapolate the performances of New Zealand teams in this competition to gauge the chances of international success. This kind of extrapolation, you will come to see, is a recurring theme for many All Blacks fans.
While the Crusaders were unable to cap off an extraordinary season, the mood tended to be positive among All Black fans hoping for RWC glory in October. Within days many All Black fans felt the chances of success were increased dramatically when the Wallabies were embarrassed by Samoa on home soil. Once again the extrapolatometers were out as the demise of Robbie Deans’s team was predicted with crystal clarity.
After an ego massaging victory over Fiji, the All Blacks looked unbeatable in the Tri-Nations until they were taken by surprise by South Africa. A hiccup which was taken remarkably well by many fans who were already looking ahead to the following week. Having already secured the Bledisloe, overcoming a team that couldn’t even beat Samoa and had that over-rated dirty cheat Quade Cooper playing for them would be a formality, and the Tri-Nations trophy would be placed safely into the cabinet (leaving enough room for Webb Ellis of course).
That didn’t go according to plan, but not to worry – in a rapid see-sawing of public mood fans hastily changed their tune, calling the loss a good thing because the Tri-Nations champion has never won the Rugby World Cup in the same year before. Yet.
There was much made of the ‘B’ team that France put up again the All Blacks in their much anticipated “grudge match” against their traditional Rugby World Cup bogey team. France was accused of devaluing the match for thousands of fans who had paid top dollar to see these sides face off. If ticket purchasers felt this way then I don’t necessarily have a lot of sympathy for them. Before the starting sides were announced, the All Blacks needed to do the following to win the Rugby World Cup: win 3 knock-out games in a row. Win or lose the France match, and the requirement for the All Blacks remained exactly the same: win 3 knock-out games in a row.
Sure, they may have been a perceived benefit for the French side to lose the match and go onto an “easier” side of the RWC tournament draw, but at the end of the day from an All Black point of view it ultimately would matter very little whether the team won or lost against France. The AB victory was celebrated in some quarters as if we had etched our name into the World Cup trophy. We had beaten our bogey side and the extrapolatometers told us with guaranteed certainty that this meant it was our year. Of course the fact that only one (potential) RWC 2011 fixture against France actually matters, was lost on most.
What would have happened had we lost that game against France ‘B’? Surely the nation would have gone into mourning as the All Blacks proved that they are the biggest World Cup chokers and are incapable of beating France in a Rugby World Cup game. And yet the formula for winning the tournament would have remained exactly the same: win 3 knock-out games in a row.
It turned out to be something from within our own ranks that caused All Black fans to go into mourning, when it was announced that the only player capable of securing New Zealand its first Rugby World Cup trophy in 24 years was out of the tournament. The doom merchants appeared from everywhere as fans forgot for a moment that rugby is a team sport played by 15 on the field, with 15 more available off it.
Which brings us back to last night’s match. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect performance. But it’s time for New Zealand to put away their extrapolatometers for good and just celebrate it for what it was – a win in the knock-out stages of a Rugby World Cup tournament. I’ve heard the win last night being described as an “ugly” one. Yet I would ask any All Black fan this question – would you actually remember how ugly the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup in 2011 if they finally won it back?
We need to change our thinking, and I thought that was what the 2007 post-RWC-mortem was supposed to have done. The All Blacks were among the form teams leading up to the 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2007 tournaments. They tended to play an expansive, “attractive” style of rugby, but ultimately they didn’t win any of those tournaments. Do we really want to win or do we only want to win playing a certain style of rugby? I for one am not fussy. If the All Blacks don’t score any more tries in the remainder of the tournament but are still able to win the trophy, I’d take that. Paradoxically, winning the Rugby World Cup tournament is less about winning all your games than it is about not losing the games that actually count. And Australia gave us a bit of a lesson in that last night. They may well end up progressive further in this tournament than us despite losing to Samoa, Ireland, South Africa, and the All Blacks in 2011.