Monday, September 27, 2010

All Blacks Looking Good (and That's a Problem)
September 22, 2010

WELLINGTON — It has been 23 long years since New Zealand rugby fans watched David Kirk hoist the Webb Ellis Cup aloft at Eden Park in Auckland.
Back then most people in this rugby-obsessed nation would have expected the All Blacks’ victory in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 to be the first of many.

Instead, long-suffering New Zealand fans have had to endure taunts of “choker” from opposing fans after watching their team breeze past their rivals in the years between rugby’s global showpiece, only to succumb when it mattered, in the Cup itself. They’ve watched Australia (1991 and 1999), South Africa (1995, 2007) and England (2003) hoist the trophy instead.

The current New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, tasted bitter defeat against Australia in the semifinals in 2003 when the opposing captain, George Gregan, unleashed his legendary “four more years” jibe at a disconsolate Byron Kelleher. In 2007, New Zealand was bounced out at the quarterfinal stage by France (and, as many New Zealand fans still claim, by the English referee Wayne Barnes) to record their worst-ever finish at the tournament.

Despite all the upsets, New Zealand has entered every World Cup tournament as the raging favorite. And in a little less than 12 months, when the seventh edition returns to New Zealand shores for the first time since 1987, the All Blacks will once again be heavily favored to take the crown.

A year ago that seemed like wishful thinking. In 2009, the All Blacks were beaten three times by the world champions, South Africa, which won the Tri-Nations and seemed destined for more World Cup glory in 2011.

But the landscape has changed again, and it is New Zealand that is once more setting the pace after ditching the limited kicking-oriented game plan of recent years in favor of a fast-paced, attacking brand of rugby that has re-ignited and re-engaged fans and, more important, produced victories in the stadium.

Some, though, are reluctant to get too carried away by the All Blacks’ current winning streak, which now stretches to 15 tests after the 6-0 sweep this year of Australia and South Africa in the Tri-Nations. Among those is Grant Fox, who won the World Cup in 1987 as New Zealand’s fly-half.

While McCaw is adamant the team is not peaking too early — and the last-gasp wins against the Wallabies and Springboks in the past month prove there is room for improvement — Fox, who was the leading points scorer at the 1987 tournament, remains cautious.

“We appear to be in good shape, but we know from bitter experience that the time between the World Cup and the results between World Cups don’t necessarily translate into success at the World Cup,” he said. “We were in good shape in 2006, and in the 2007 tournament we didn’t get past the quarterfinal stage.
“Those of us who have watched the All Blacks for a long time are perhaps just enjoying the moment now, and we’ll worry about next year next year.
“I don’t think we want to read too much into it because history tells us we shouldn’t.”

There is no doubt the pressure on McCaw and his players to deliver the trophy on home soil next year will be immense.

“The rugby public here are very keen for us to win another one, as are guys like myself who have been lucky enough to win a World Cup,” Fox said. “We certainly don’t want to be the only group of players to have won a World Cup. We desperately want another group of New Zealand players to enjoy that experience.”

But for now, the group appears to be taking it all in its stride as preparations get under way for an end-of-the-year tour of Hong Kong, Britain and Ireland.

“It’s one step at a time really,” New Zealand’s coach, Graham Henry, said before the team’s final Tri-Nations match against Australia. “It’s the Tri-Nations, then the tour and then 2011 and what we need to do there. I think we’re on track.”

Also on track, despite the recent earthquake in the Christchurch area, are the stadium redevelopments, ticket sales and planning for the tournament next year, which will be spread across 13 venues and 23 towns and cities in New Zealand.

Four of the six venues that are being revamped have completed their renovations. Updates to Northland Stadium in Whangarei and Eden Park — which will play host to the opening game between New Zealand and Tonga, along with the semifinals and final — are due to be finished next month.

Otago Stadium in Dunedin is the only venue being built from scratch and, after a delayed start, is also on target to be ready by August.
More than 500,000 tickets were sold in the first round of sales. That encouraging figure means the tournament, at this stage, is expected to come in on budget, with a 39.3 million New Zealand dollar loss for the organizers, Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd., which can generate revenue only from ticket sales.

R.N.Z. 2011, which was created by the New Zealand Rugby Union and the national government to organize the tournament, will absorb that loss, with the union covering one-third of it and the government the remainder.
The earthquake, which left many people homeless and damaged large parts of the city and region’s infrastructure and buildings, is an unexpected hurdle, however.

“We are monitoring potential impacts on our planning for R.W.C. 2011, but at this stage there is nothing to suggest the region will not be able to play its part in hosting this event,” said Martin Snedden, chief executive of R.N.Z. 2011. “Stadium Christchurch, venue for seven matches, has been given the all clear by structural engineers, and that is great news.”

Jock Hobbs, the R.N.Z. 2011 chairman who was born in Christchurch, was confident any accommodation problems arising from the disaster could be overcome.

“I don’t think we’re aware of the full extent of the damage yet. There are some hotels that have some damage, but we have back-up contingency plans around the official accommodation commitments that we have so we are happy and satisfied in that respect,” said Hobbs.
“I think we will just have to wait a little while longer to get a full assessment around the hotel situation. But again I’m sure that we can get through.
“Cantabrians have got great spirit and great determination. When things need to be done they get done.”

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