The Rugby World Cup kicks off exactly a year tomorrow in Japan, where Wales will be among a number of countries aiming to seize the crown from New Zealand. The All Blacks’ dominance has been so convincing over the last 12 months, few people predicted their recent shock to home defeat to South Africa? Are there cracks in the machine? Is this the start of a year’s decline that can provide hope to the likes of Wales? It’s more complicated, says Harri Morgan.
For us outsiders, it is easy to pass off a rare All Black defeat as a one off. An anomaly. Like getting a B in religious studies when you’re rocking A’s galore in the subjects that matter.
New Zealand will bounce back. It would take a brave punter to back their opponents next week, or the week after. Bugger it, you’re brave if you ever wager against the world champions.
But, what outsiders classify as an anomaly, is simultaneously the greatest fear for those in the inner sanctum. It is the reason for the extra rep, the justification for the ‘clean as’ feed.
Whilst the rest of us might lie awake on a Sunday night asking searching life questions like ‘why am I still drinking Hooch at the age of 31’; the All Blacks’ sheep counting is interrupted by visions of that B grade performance, the anomaly.
Why the worry? They’ll win next time, they will win the Rugby Championship.
For the answer, I defer to the All Black sides of the 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups or as they are collectively known, The Chokers.
They were top teams that based on overall win percentages could warrant a place in the great All Blacks column. Alas, the reality is different. The reality is that the legacy of these sides has been defined by one match – one loss.
Contests that were, in many ways similar to Saturday’s game in Wellington. The men in Black not quite at it, their opponents absolutely fizzing.
Steve Hansen was quick to jump to the defence of his first five, Beaudan Barrett, preferring a narrative that put frailties in D rather than the inaccuracies off the tee as the primary reason for the defeat.
Despite both the D and T misfiring, New Zealand had an opportunity to win the game. They were camped in the Bokke 22 as the clock approached and then ticked beyond eighty.
If the missed kicks and leaked tries were technical errors, the inability to manufacture a victory at the death was a shortcoming in strategy and preparation.
It is this, that should cause Steve Hansen most concern, as he lies awake plotting a journey, which would be tagged an epic fail if it doesn’t yield a third consecutive Webb Ellis Cup.
Against a desperate Springbok side, The All Blacks backed themselves to bag a victory via a last play five-pointer. Just as they had when locked at 15-all in the final Test of last year’s Lions series.
Same approach, same result – disappointment.
The intent is admirable, reflective of the belief, the humble swagger that is synonymous with the black jumper. They chased the big play, not the pragmatic one.
The match-winning drop goal is a pressure cooker scenario, and is as much about the meticulous planning and execution of the phases that precede the strike as it is the nudge itself.
A plan, that like any other needs to be repeated to perfection on the training paddock.
The routine that lead to Jonny Wilkinson dropping England to World Cup glory had undoubtedly occurred countless times on the fields of Pennyhill Park prior to being rolled out that night at Sydney’s Olympic Park.
Credit must go to the Springboks for their Cake Tin win. The pumping legs of Warren Whiteley as he ran down a try-line bound TJ Perenara, and the post-match tears of Pieter-Steph du Toit were the abiding images of a mega effort that got its just reward.
The short term gratification belonged to the South Africans, but in the grand scheme of Rugby World Cup preparations, the lessons available in defeat – if they choose to learn from them – may render the game of greater long term value to the defeated than the victors.