Why the All Blacks are so special - by a soccer convert from Germany
Last year, James Carter - a confirmed round-ball fan - spent six months in New Zealand. When he arrived, he knew nothing about rugby but now the All Blacks are his heroes. Here's why . . .
'It's the Haka before every game, the Silver Fern, the Black Jersey. It's the players standing for something that is bigger than themselves, for a name - a name with history and a name with tradition' I have to admit that I don´t know a hell of a lot about rugby. I haven't watched more than about 15 games and I still don´t get it when a player is offside.
In fact, I didn´t know anything about rugby before I came to New Zealand in July 2006 to stay for half a year. My sport was soccer - I loved it, like probably most Europeans and definitely most of the Germans in that year of the soccer World Cup.
Rugby - there was some sort of vague idea in my head; an idea about a game played with an egg-shaped ball which some fierce-looking guys try to get beyond some line, beating and hitting each other without obeying any rules. This was confirmed when I watched my first game - a Tri-Nations match where Australia ran all over South Africa and won 49-0.
I didn't understand a single move and tried hard to follow the confusing explanations of my host parents. To me, the game made no sense at all. It seemed to consist either of a dozen men lying all over each other or of a time-out in which the worst injuries were treated.
“Bring back soccer!” I prayed. How could people be so excited about this game? Well, I would find out. With a host family like mine, you can´t just ignore rugby. They were so into it with their regular seats next to the tunnel at Eden Park - and they were great supporters of Auckland and the All Blacks.
But it was not just their influence that made me hold my breath when I first watched New Zealand play. I wasn´t even in the stadium, I just watched the game on TV. Nevertheless I could feel that there was something special about the All Blacks. This team has something we call presence.
Before very long I became a big fan of the All Blacks. I got up at 3am to watch their games, spent a day in stunned dismay after the terrible 21-20 loss against South Africa at Rustenburg, cursed Rodney So'oialo for his fatal mistake, was full of enthusiasm when we defeated England, France and Wales in the end-of -year tour. I lived the All Blacks.
But what is it that makes this team so unbelievably…good? It´s not just that they play some pretty amazing footie, that they do it so well that it's a delight to watch them. It's not just hat they are the hardest team to beat and quite probably the next world champions. Success alone doesn't make a bloody good team, which is what they are.I don't want to go into individual players in more detail.
You could fill pages with the genius of Richie McCaw, the tireless captain, of Dan Carter, whose skills and style I admire, of Joe Rokocoko, Luke McAlister, Ali Williams, Chris Jack and all the other All Blacks. People have done that before. Although each player is a fantastic footballer in his own right, it's the team that makes up the All Blacks.
It's their perfect interaction, their fighting together for a victory and for a good game. It´s the Haka before every game, the Silver Fern, the Black Jersey. It's the players standing for something that is bigger than themselves, for a name - a name with history and a name with tradition. It's this team that gives us fans a feeling of unity and of belonging, that lets us suffer from every defeat and celebrate every victory, just as if we were part of the team - and somehow we are. It's the team that makes us proud to be a supporter, that inspires a whole nation. And more. It's the All Blacks.
World Cup preview - All Blacks
The world's number one team heads to the 2007 Rugby World Cup again as favourites. However, unlike other World Cups, the All Blacks head to France with an imposing record and coach Graham Henry has done everything possible to ensure that since the last world cup they are as well prepared as possible.
Since Rugby World Cup 2003...
In the last four years the All Blacks have lost only 5 matches and won 38 (an 88% winning record). No team in history has compiled such a magnificent record, and only Martin Johnson's and Clive Woodward's 2003 England had a comparable record over a 3+ year period.
In this time the All Blacks have only lost to two teams, the Springboks and the Wallabies, and even against the latter were unbeaten in 2005 and 2006.They inflicted the heaviest defeat ever on the fabled British & Irish Lions with an impressive 3-0 whitewash, completed a rare home unions Grand Slam, have not relinquished the Bledisloe Cup in this period, and with their recent Philips Tri Nations victory, won the southern hemisphere's premier trophy for the third year in a row, and eighth overall (after 12 years of competition).
They have also conquered Europe - marching through the Northern Hemisphere to remain unbeaten against all of their nations with their last defeat coming at the hands of World Champions elect England in early 2003. They have in this time inflicted on England and France their heaviest home defeats in history (twice to France), with their performance in late 2005 against Les Bleus labelled by many purists as the most complete rugby football massacre of all time.Strange that no mention of the fact that this year's host France, have had their three worst defeats in history inflicted upon them by this All Blacks team in the last three years, twice in their own backyard.As their resume has become all the more impressive, so has expectation, both at home and worldwide. In 2007 the All Blacks have been labelled as a declining force, yet to hit their straps. Two heavy defeats against a depleted French outfit seemed to impress no one, and the All Blacks most recent nemesis, the Wallabies, seemed to, out of nowhere, come from behind to stun the world's best team 20-15 in Melbourne. Closing wins against a weakened Springbok team, and a solid shut out of the Wallabies in Auckland have silenced some critics, but not all....
Their most obvious is their depth. New Zealand with their sound domestic structure has always had great talent, but Graham Henry has been possessed in his quest to ensure that there are at least two international class players in every position. This was spectacularly evidenced in their Grand Slam tour, where Henry rotated his entire starting fifteeen against Ireland after beating Wales, and the team looked no weaker for it.
This strength also corresponds to their bench, giving them tremendous strike power with no position being weakened when substituted.
This All Blacks team also has multiple gameplans, something not seen in the past, with the ability to run opposition ragged with a gifted back division, yet able also to grind teams down through the forwards or through the kicking of their gifted number 10 Dan Carter. While his form has been arguably down this year, he is still probably the worlds premier flyhalf - a position crucial to a team winning the William Webb Ellis Cup.They possess probably the strongest pack in world rugby - and are realistically the world's best scrummaging team. They have great pride in their ability in this set piece, and have their greatest depth in their forwards.
The All Blacks also field the best loose forward trio of all the world teams, with the 6,7,8 combination of Collins, McCaw and So'oialo being thereabouts the best in their respective positions in the planet. Their nous at the breakdown has been one of the keys to their dominance over these recent years, and this has led to them being an impressive defensive side, and a lethal counterattacking team. However, this innovation over the last few years has been duly noted by other world teams, and contestation at the ruck is very strong globally.
While some are casting doubts over the All Blacks recent form and others mutter the word "chokers" - the reality is that the All Blacks most dominant strength is the recent record they bring to the 2007 Cup. Diminishing or not, they have been the world's dominant team in a way that no other team has been before them, and bring with them a winning culture.
Mindset. If the All Blacks remind themselves of their "failures" of 99 and 03 they will create doubt that is not needed. Never mind that Les Bleus and the Wallabies played their greatest games of all time to beat New Zealand in these Cups, the All Blacks carry a century old history of expectation and quite simply, their public expects them to win.
The word chokers will be muttered, nay yelled, by all the opposition teams, as they know that they have a greater chance of beating the All Blacks mentally than on the park. Graham Henry and his men have ensured that these mistakes will not be repeated, and reflecting on them will be at their own peril.Tana Umaga's retirement from international rugby probably hurt the All Blacks more than they care to admit. While players such as Nonu, Smith, Muliana and Toeava have done sufficient jobs as custodians of the 13 jumper - the abundant strength of all other positions of the team has probably glossed over the hole which has only emerged in their most recent defeat in Melbourne as an obvious one. It was Christian Cullen's and Leon Macdonald's (both first choice fullbacks) selections in these positions in the 99 and 03 Cup that was probably as much a reason for defeat as anything else - and this defensive channel will again be targeted in France.
Luke McAlister's emergence as an international level second five-eighth - while a benefit of New Zealand's depth, has created a problem with itself, with a selection dilemma between himself and Aaron Mauger. They both possess different styles of play, and as the above mentioned problematic 13 position requires strength and guidance from the 12 jersey, this could cause another potential weakness in the All Blacks' armoury.
For all of their strength in the set piece, the All Blacks' most glaring weakness is once again their lineout. Over the last decade despite world class locks and hookers, the New Zealand line out seems to periodically suffer and remains one of the only top ranked nations not to consistently compete against opposition throws. While it is not realistically a weakness that loses them games, it is an area that can and will be targeted.
Their greatest strength though has probably been ironically their greatest recent weakness, as being the world's best team over such a long period has meant that their competitors have watched them closely and the gap is not as wide as it was in 2005 and 2006. With their blitzrieg style of play and impressive forward dominance other nations have learnt and like any other sporting code, the better the team - or player(s) - at the top of the hill, the better the chasing pack will inevitably become.
The X factor
Graham Henry and others have spoken often of not repeating the mistakes of previous World Cups and in 2003 the All Blacks were brilliant in notching up 50 points against both the Springboks and the Wallabies in their backyards. Yet in the return games in New Zealand, the margins were traditionally tight. Many said that the All Blacks showed all of their Aces before the World Cup even started, and this was sensationally proven by Eddie Jones.
Has this lesson been learned? Have the 2007 All Blacks planned one of rugby history's great feints and been underplaying their hand to roll out artillery that the rugby world will be shocked by come October 20. Time will tell.The other X factor is the world's premier openside flanker, the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. He has been instrumental in his team's success, and while other nations bemoan his "cheating", the reality is that it seems their claims are the only way other teams can beat him. Two crucial points. What happens if he is injured. Even Dan Carter can in theory afford to be injured as they have Nick Evans, a world class 10 in their squad. But there is no one (maybe bar Marty Holah, not in the squad or selector's frame) to replace their mecurial captain. But the other is his captaincy. He leads from the front, no doubt - but he does not seem the inspirational captain that Tana Umaga was, and is not yet an international captain (excluding his magnificent win-loss record) mentioned in the same breath as Johnson, Eales, Piennar and others. Can he inspire his team to win if they are 10 points behind with 10 minutes to go in a World Cup Semi-final? This remains to be seen.
The reality is if the All Blacks play to potential, execute a game plan with a contingency, don't defeat themselves in their heads, and don't select a full back or prop in the outside centre position, they should win this 2007 World Cup.