Today at 8.30 am the Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand. Cue four weeks of rugby fans across the United Kingdom rising in the small hours to watch a sport where even Scotland are ranked in the top ten competing nations and England, yes England, are a valid bet on picking up the Web Ellis Cup on the 23rd October.
But there is one nation -widely seen as the sports’ greatest- that seem to struggle when it comes to the biggest stage. Despite being regarded by some as the best side on the planet, New Zealand have choked at every tournament since the inaugural one. And with every World Cup that goes by, 1987 becomes to The All Blacks what 1966 is to English football – perhaps with more heartache, given the smaller pool of egg-chasing nations, the sheer quality of “The Blackness” and the simple fact that ‘code’ courses through the veins of every single Kiwi in the Land of the Long White Cloud. This passion runs deeper than even Fat Les or Baddiel and Skinner could ever hope to express in song.
This year, with home advantage again, they are favourites. Will history repeat itself, finally? Two defeats in this year’s Tri Nations seemed to suggest the opposite. The first of those losses –with a weakened side- to the Meat-Eating Republic of South Africa was tolerated. Players needed to be rested, others blooded in the white-heat of test rugby, said armchair coaches up and down the land. The second, a 20-25 loss in Brisbane really hurt. It was a “wake up call” and a “reality check” said the jittery media back in New Zealand as they fired up the choking bandwagon. Panic hasn’t gripped the fanatical natives thus far, though. They’ve not taken to the streets of Palmerston North with burning torches demanding the head of Graham Henry. Yet.
Paradoxically, the national anxiety might have been greater had the All Blacks won those two games. Since the dawn of the Tri-Nations in 1996 they have won the title in every World Cup year. Head Coach Graham Henry, perhaps with a hint of stress, has pointed out that any “fears of complacency have been extinguished.”
Since 1991, the aftermath of an All Blacks exit has been alive with plenty of explanations: bad refereeing, player incompatibility, bad refereeing, too much fancy stuff, too much simple stuff, and yet more bad refereeing. And thousands of New Zealanders still curse the mysterious “Suzie”, a South African waitress, for poisoning the boys before the 1995 final. To be fair, recriminations were more rational than many expected after the 2007 defeat to France, to the extent that Henry could be reappointed and not hung from the highest point in Hamilton as a warning to others.
Since the dawn of the Tri-Nations in 1996 they have won the title in every World Cup year. Head Coach Graham Henry, perhaps with a hint of stress, has pointed out that any “fears of complacency have been extinguished.”
Fears for 2011 are such that a national broadsheet newspaper recently saw fit to seek a psychologist's advice on coping mechanisms, and the website Wait-of-a-nation.com captures something of the mood in its sardonic forecast of "a tailspin of depression" at New Zealand's inevitable capitulation. How to cope? "Amplify the woe. Fixate on and obsess about our World Cup frailties."
If the World Cup were awarded for volume of media coverage, New Zealand would have it sewn up already. The tournament will be broadcast on four terrestrial channels as well as satellite TV; the final seven games will air simultaneously on at least five channels. In fact, club games and Super 15 matches struggle with attendances such is the availability of ‘footy’ on the tele. Rugby stories have trespassed into the front parts of newspapers to the extent that news and sports sections are almost indistinguishable. Libya? Alien invasion? Forget it, mate, there's a World Cup around the corner.
Still, 24 years: 1987 and all that.
The second World Cup to be played in New Zealand arrives after a remarkable and harrowing year. In November 2010, 29 men were killed in an explosion at the Pike River mine on the South Island's west coast. Three months later, the most severe of a series of earthquakes struck Christchurch, on the opposite coast, killing 181. "The country has taken a hell of a hiding in the last 12 months," says Kiwi author Lloyd Jones, "We need some good news."
Among its many more severe hardships, Christchurch lost the seven games it had been scheduled to host. The Canterbury region's refurbished stadium, like so much of the city, had been cracked and contorted. Twelve of the 30 players in the All Blacks squad come from the Canterbury-based Crusaders, who played this year's Super-15, reaching the final, without a home ground, hosting matches as far afield as Twickenham. The All Blacks captain, Richie McCaw, and vice-captain, Dan Carter – a forward and fly-half every bit as important to New Zealand in 2011 as Johnno and Wilkinson were to England in 2003 – are based in Christchurch. This added pressure could make or break the All Black campaign.
And what of the All Blacks' home advantage? If New Zealand's World Cup record is a parade of disappointment, it is equally true to say that New Zealand are unbeaten in World Cup games at home. "It could be either a positive or a negative," says former hooker Anton Oliver. He, too, hopes the country can hold its nerve. "I'd like to think that New Zealand supporters and the media are all going to be inside the tent p*ssing out, rather than on the outside p*ssing in," he says. "When things get difficult, that's when your true colours get shown. Are you actually in this together, are you supporting, or are you just going to jump ship and say: 'I told you so'? I think that's where human character gets revealed."
And what of the All Blacks' home advantage? If New Zealand's World Cup record is a parade of disappointment, it is equally true to say that New Zealand are unbeaten in World Cup games at home.
My money’s on them not choking this time. I’m a Pommie b**tard but I’m p*ssing out of the tent with Anton. I can’t see past a New Zealand victory in Auckland in October. I feel that Henry has amassed a team that will march to the final undefeated under the command of Richie “Tackles” McCaw the mercurial Daniel Carter, and the most intelligent player in world rugby, centre Conrad Smith.
With one caveat, however.
I reckon The Blackness will either face England, who haven’t beaten them in 8 years and are arriving at the World Cup perhaps 18 months too early, or outsiders France who knocked them out of the last tournament and simply don’t give a f*ck who they play when it comes to the knock-outs. If Les Bleus beat les rosbiff’s in the quarters and dispatch Australia in the semis, then all bets are off ladies and gentlemen.
And should the All Blacks come unstuck this time, and choke in the face of a(nother) French onslaught, then I wouldn’t want to be an All Black for all the Steinlager in Auckland.
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook