Sunday May 29, 2011
The All Blacks have undergone a subtle but hugely significant change of mindset in their approach to this year's World Cup. Inspired by the normally phlegmatic Richie McCaw, the senior players have agreed that 2011 is their chance to make history - to write one of the greatest chapters in an already compelling story of success.
They will be driven by that goal, encouraged to embrace it, talk about it and own the dream. This is a World Cup to be embraced says McCaw; a World Cup to be enjoyed. A once in a lifetime opportunity for the All Blacks win in their own backyard; to celebrate in front of their people and a global audience entranced by the warmth, energy and natural charms of New Zealand.
It is also potentially yet another chance for the All Blacks to fail spectacularly;to once more command rugby's top seat for three-and-a-half years only to tumble off it when it really matters.
But no one in the All Black camp will be allowed to think about the negative outcome; no one will be tied in knots with anxiety, fearful that a World Cup in New Zealand is a threat rather than an opportunity.
McCaw and his senior troops have already agreed that fear of failure will be self-fulfilling. In previous tournaments, the All Blacks have avoided any internal discussions about outcome.
World Cups have largely been endured rather than enjoyed, with the players wondering why the giant elephant in the room is ignored; why the focus is exclusively on process and no one confronts the tougher challenge of talking about the bigger picture.
2011 will be different-the All Blacks will gather on July 18 ahead of their opening test against Fiji and know that they potentially have 14 weeks together to make history. McCaw says his team will be driven by their desire to contribute to a positive tournament cap what could be a spectacular seven weeks for New Zealand by winning it. "We need to make sure everyone is excited by what is coming," he says.
"When I talk to people, they say 'good luck for the end of the year but geez... are you feeling the pressure?' I think you can look at it like that and perhaps people are a little bit anxious about it and you can think 'Oh God, we have got this thing looming over us'.
"But I like to think what a great opportunity we have. It would be easy to feel the weight of what happens if we don't win it. But I think: what if we do? Wouldn't it be great to have an awesome tournament where the whole country gets to enjoy it and the All Blacks win in the end? What an opportunity that is.
"We didn't talk about it [fear of losing in the past] and that made it worse. We will have 14 weeks to get things right and to perform at our best and, yeah, we have been talking about that . . . we want to win the World Cup. We don't want to just turn up. We really want to win it."
The subtleties of this All Black ethos could easily be missed by a public justifiably sceptical about the combination of the national team and World Cups. Creative thinking has never been a problem in the past - every All Black team since 1991 has been certain their build-up, their preparation, their way of approaching the tournament is the right way.
The last tournament may have been the one that left even the most fiercely loyal fan unwilling to make a major emotional investment in the All Blacks' chances. The conditioning window and the rotation policy were supposed to be the secret weapons. The nation heard for months in advance about how they would see the best-prepared All Black team in World Cup history.The old failings of cracking under pressure, well, they were supposedly a thing of the past too.
McCaw is not daunted by history. His confidence in the current team is seemingly unshakeable, although he accepts that it is fair to wonder why anyone should believe the 2011 All Blacks will be the ones to finally deliver. "A few of us have been through experiences in the last couple of years and four years ago that hopefully we have learned from," he says. "I look at the guys we have in this team and think we are capable of beating anyone. But we have learned there are no guarantees. What we have done in previous years counts for nothing. "But the experiences within games where they have gone our way... we can take out of those. Like when we went behind in Soweto last year... if we find ourselves behind again [at the World Cup],we can say to ourselves that we have been in this situation before and we got out of it - so we can back ourselves to get it right again this time." "I would like to think that we have senior players so that when the pressure comes on instead of closing down - which we all do at times - we will take the lessons out of games we have won.'
While McCaw makes valid points, in some respects the most convincing reason to believe in this year's All Black campaign lies in the obvious depth of thought that has been given to the issue of where things went wrong last time. McCaw and his senior team (which includes Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Mils Muliaina, Andrew Hore, Brad Thorn and Conrad Smith) have met several times in the past 12 months to discuss World Cup preparations.
Unlike 2007, they have spent more time looking back to draw key lessons from their mistakes which is why McCaw can add to his list of reasons to be confident this time round.
"Looking at the experience of 2007, that game [quarter-final] just shows you that, I don't know if this was the case, but perhaps we had one eye looking at the three weeks and how to win the whole tournament. Whereas a quarter-final... that is the only game you have got. Play that and win that and, if you are good enough, you will get another go next week. That sounds silly but it is an attitude [we have to have]. You put everything into that week and then get another go.
"We also have to realise that things might not go our way - that we might not get a ref's call or we might get injuries but we just have to be able to deal with it. Things like how you select the team, the coaches will be thinking hard about that; about what's the best thing to do.
"Last year, we had a pretty settled team but whether they do that this year...? I think they probably will.The coaches made no bones about that last year but you have to make sure that guys have had the experience as well - so if you do get injuries and have to call people in, they are equipped to play."
The obvious omission in the points of difference between 2011 and 2007 is the skipper himself. It's not in McCaw's nature to dwell on his own importance, yet any talk of the All Blacks' chances at this year's World Cup can't ignore the fact that they have, for the first time since Sean Fitzpatrick, a genuine colossus as captain.
In the wake of McCaw's announcement that he had re-signed for another four years, there were somewhat puzzling suggestions that he's already on the decline and the New Zealand Rugby Union was taking an extraordinary risk in tying in a 30- year-old open side for so long on such a big package.
It is questionable whether he will still be the same force in 2015 or maybe even 2014. But the enduring memory of 2010 was McCaw at his imperious best. He wiped the floor with just about everyone he encountered and, while Australia's David Pocock showed he was a fierce and gifted competitor, he lacked the poise and inner calm of McCaw.
While McCaw has fire in his blood, he has ice in his brain; Pocock is gripped with the fury, the sort of bloke who needs to howl at the moon every now and again by way of release. The aura of McCaw is enough to put referees on edge; to unsettle opponents and certainly enough to lift and inspire his team-mates.He has more to come, more to give and 2011 could be the year he becomes the undisputed best and most influential player in world rugby. His personal summit is some way off.
Think back to 2008 and 2009 when McCaw didn't play and when he did. The All Blacks slipped to two consecutive defeats in the Tri Nations before McCaw returned and steered them to the title and an unbeaten eight-test stretch.
When he was injured last June, the All Blacks were close to being awful. He is an entirely different proposition as a leader now than in 2007 and he carries this burning desire to make a significant footprint in All Black history. McCaw is aware of the need to have a legacy; to leave office with a defining achievement. When it all went wrong in 2007, when his leadership was questioned by some, McCaw vowed that he was going to master the art of captaincy and become one of the greats.
He has been singularly devoted to that goal - which is why he never once thought of testing the offshore market earlier this year. Money doesn't drive him. The thought of playing in muddy fields across Europe leaves him cold. He is what prison inmates would refer to as a lifer, dedicated to his country, something All Black coach Graham Henry believes is critical to the quality of performance. "These guys [McCaw and Dan Carter] want to play outstanding rugby still and the only way they think they are going to do that is to wear the All Black jersey; as that brings the best out of them. He wants to add to the brand and that legacy - that's what the All Blacks are all about.
"Young guys come in and they want to be top All Blacks and cement themselves in the team. The guys who have been around for a while, Brad Thorn, Mils Muliaina, Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Richie, they want to add to that legacy and make sure that their time in the jersey adds some very important history. That's what inspires them and that is why they are signing contracts that keep them in New Zealand."
Quite why anyone would lack faith in McCaw is hard to fathom. He made his test debut amid allegations he'd be horribly exposed - only to walk off Lansdowne Road as man of the match. He was accused of being the wrong man to captain the All Blacks after the last World Cup fiasco, only to establish himself as arguably the best the nation has known; certainly the longest-serving.
He is an athlete who doesn't believe in limits. He sees growth as infinite, which is why he has signed, in good faith, a contract that could see him become the first man to captain the All Blacks at three World Cups.
That sounds preposterous but McCaw is in such a good head space; so supremely physically capable and so driven that it's easy enough to see it happening. His legacy may not be one World Cup title - it could be two. What's more, he'll instill an ethos among his peers that they can enjoy every minute of it.
By Gregor Paul