Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Don't blame Richie, but whose call was it?

By TONY SMITH, The Press
Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Blame! It's a filthy five-letter word that has become as much a part of the sporting lexicon as "goal", "try" or "off-side".

A wise man once told me never to point the finger because there's always three pointing back, that the character defects we identify in others are the same shortcomings we loathe in ourselves.
It's a fine theory in principle, but much harder to adhere to in practice.

Last week after the the long- awaited World Cup review was made public All Blacks coach Graham Henry passionately defended his captain Richie McCaw's decision to chase a try or a penalty rather than a dropped goal to win the Cardiff quarter-final.
Henry's loyalty was laudable. "Don't blame Richie," he said.

The World Cup review talks, quite rightly, about a lack of leadership in the key quarterfinal. Hopefully, it will help sports fans to ditch the wrong-headed notion that leadership is confined to the captain.

A head-in-the-sand Henry vehemently denied last week that leadership was lacking. Yet I can understand how Don Tricker, one of the review's two authors, would reach that conclusion.
Tricker did something no New Zealand rugby coach has done for 20 years – win a world championship title. Two of them, to boot.

He led the Black Sox to the gold medal in South Africa in 2000 when the players had to bunk down in a cockroach-infested hostel in East London.

When the Black Sox retained their crown in Christchurch in 2004 they stayed in mini-motel accommodation rather than five-star hotels.

Could you imagine an All Black "leader" enduring digs like that? They almost mutinied when former manager Andrew (Colonel) Martin dared to suggest it.

Leadership is all about seizing the initiative, about taking individual responsibility for the collective good.

Did Anzac soldiers simply shoulder arms because there were no officers left to command them at Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Crete or Cassino?

Rugby's rank-and-file should never rely on the captain to make every crucial call.
Aaron Mauger was just 21 in 2002 when George Gregan's Brumbies were leading with time ticking away at Jade Stadium. The Crusaders were pressing for a try but young Mauger was taking no chances. He potted a field goal for a 33-32 win and the Crusaders went on to an unbeaten season.

Where was that calm head in Cardiff? Between Mauger's hands, as he shook in disbelief in the Millennium Stadium bleachers with the other non-playing All Blacks. Beside him was another follow-me- style leader, Reuben Thorne, omitted because of the coaches' obsession with a holus-bolus Hurricanes backrow.

Let me spirit you back even further into the mists of time.
Lancaster Park, 1970, the All Blacks had returned to the Ranfurly Shield arena from another ill-starred South African safari.

Shield-holder Canterbury was trailing challenger Wellington 3-0. An attacking scrum was set near the Wellington line. A dropped goal would mean a draw which would keep the shield from the Wellingtonians' desperate clutches. Canterbury first five-eighths Doug Bruce gasped like a firing squad victim drawing on his last cigarette.
Second-five "Baker" Cottrell also appeared anxious that he might not get the recipe right on a high- pressure occasion.

A clear, gruff voice rang out behind them. "Give the @#%^&* thing here." Fullback Fergie McCormick swung a square-toed boot and sent the ball spiralling between the uprights.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I remember quizzing Todd Blackadder after the Crusaders conceded a short-side try from a scrum in a home defeat against the Hurricanes in 2001. Giant Jonah Lomu seized the ball and his midget- sized marker Afato So'oalo seemed to disappear into the second tier of the No. 3 stand at Jade Stadium. Who can blame him? It was a mismatch made in hell. "Did you think about detaching a flanker to stop Lomu?" I asked Blackadder next day."Yes I did," he said, quick as a flash. "About 4.30 this morning."

It's easy for a sports hack with his well-padded posterior on a padded press box seat to second-guess a skipper. It's even easier for a spectator. But, no-one inside or outside the All Blacks can deny should have slotted a field goal in Cardiff. It's called a percentage play.

I don't blame McCaw, Luke McAlister, Henry or anyone, individually. The game is gone, the World Cup still eludes us. The key now is how much the All Blacks have learned from it.
But I'm sure at some stage they will wake up from the nightmare and have a 4.30 in the morning moment.

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