Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Icons of rugby : The weight of expectancy is a heavy burden for the All Blacks,19793,12062_4453896,00.html
Posted: 04th November 2008 10:55

Saturday's match in Hong Kong was New Zealand's one hundred and fiftieth test of the professional era.

Of those tests they have won one hundred and twenty one of them, a staggering 81%. Of the twenty seven losses two have been seismic Rugby World shocks against France and one was a lesser surprise - but still a surprise - even though the opponents were Australia in a World Cup semi final in Sydney.

Those three defeats, added to the another loss to Australia in another semi final in 1991 and an injury time loss to South Africa in the 1995 final make the All Blacks the most fascinating international team in modern sport. Opposing supporters do not care who the World Champions are, they want to catch a glimpse of the All Blacks at the same time as New Zealanders themselves do not care how many matches their national team wins, many of them will not be content with life until they are the official World Champions.

World Cup woes

Until they achieve that whoever is in charge of New Zealand faces tempestuous times. Graham Henry and his management team have pulled through the crashing disappointment of losing last year's World Cup with a fourth consecutive Tri Nations title - the ninth New Zealand success in thirteen competitions.

But defeats at home to South Africa and away in Australia means, according to no lesser personage than Sean Fitzpatrick, nothing less than Saturday's win and a Grand Slam against the British and Irish nations (at the end of the Southern Hemisphere season) will do if the calls for Henry's head are not to reverberate throughout New Zealand.

This touring team looks backwards to its own and sees the doubt and mistrust of substantial portions of its nation (the falling crowds in a 'so called' rugby mad nation illustrate the disillusionment) whereas they travel north as undisputed icons of the sport.

The credit crunch may have rattled the foundations of the City but there will be a thriving black market when the Kiwis hit London in little under a month, whilst in Cardiff a ticket for the All Blacks is almost regarded as proof of God. Welsh fanatics have waited over half a century to beat New Zealand; Scotland, who meet the men in black next weekend, have never beaten them, drawing two and losing twenty-four fixtures, which is twice as good as Ireland's record who have just the one draw to their name.

England has beaten them on six occasions but it must be recorded that the evolving World Cup winners benefited from playing All Black teams that arrived substantially weakened; still they pushed England's greatest team all the way, at Twickenham, and still the fans celebrated the rarest of Northern Hemisphere triumphs.

Against the four home unions New Zealand has won eighty eight and lost nine of their one hundred and one matches. From the British and Irish perspective, New Zealand remains rugby's Everest.
The World Cup is the great blight on the rugby nation, a curse that has dampened local ardour but never looked remotely like stopping New Zealand from being the world's best team three out of four years. Maybe the great tradition of the game has made it harder for them to focus narrowly on one tournament compared to say, the Australian union parvenus, who, with a smaller playing base and a second rate history in comparison, have done so much better than their mighty union neighbours in the sport's modern benchmark.

If the tradition (and a colossal inability to think straight and not underestimate opposition under the most intense pressure) has prevented New Zealand from matching their historical achievements with World Cups, it plays an immense part in making any New Zealand team such a difficult one to beat for the other two hundred and two weeks of the four yearly cycle. National pride resides more firmly in the All Blacks than in any other rugby team; the two are inextricably linked. The burden overwhelms come the World Cup but it inspires the rest of the time.

Captain fantastic

This team is driven by the inspiration of their captain, Richie McCaw. He may not be Cicero but where he goes his team mates follow. On the England tour in the summer it was fascinating, watching New Zealand train, to see McCaw always the first man out on the training field; come the test match he is always the first man to the breakdown. If the breakdown is at the very heart of the game (and don't believe those who tell you it isn't) McCaw has every right to be viewed as the most influential player on the planet.

All Black supporters - and by this I include an awful lot of journalists and commentators - see the man as a rugby immortal. If he misses a tackle the commentator ignores the fact, if he drops a high ball the blame is pinned on a poor colleague nowhere near the scene of the error. Perspective is as common an occurrence as a New Zealand World Cup win.

Yet in the next month McCaw will probably quietly demolish his detractors who regard him as little more than a cheating Maori myth. Technically he eclipses any other player in the game at the point of contact; so good his critics cannot believe the amount of ball he pilfers or regains from unpromising situations has been legally reclaimed. Well, the vast majority of it is and, with the captain controlling the breakdown, the Kiwis inevitably control the game. It is no coincidence that New Zealand's two losses in the Tri Nations occurred with McCaw injured.

He is at the heart of this team but many supporters will pay to see what the sport's most glamorous commodity, Dan Carter can conjure behind the strong New Zealand pack. Memories of his demolition of the 2005 Lions linger but the good news for Welsh, Irish and England fans who have their ticket to see the biggest draw in the game is that all these teams are superior to those decidedly inferior Lions. As for Scotland Saturday, there is always blind faith and jetlag.Now to this week's mail.

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