The gospel about the Rugby World Cup,
according to Phil Kearns, a World Cup winner
as a Wallaby and now an ebullient rugby
commentator, is this: "If they play the
World Cup for 1000 years, the All Blacks
will always be favourites to win it."
Not win it, which has only happened once,
but favourites to win it.
Perhaps 3007 is too far away for us to make
predictions. For this year, though, Kearns
is right. The All Blacks are favourites,
according to the bookmakers. And it's a
In the four years since their 22-10 defeat
in Sydney by the Wallabies in the semifinal
of the 2003 World Cup, the All Blacks have
played 43 Tests for 38 wins. This is one of
the great winning streaks in world rugby.
England had a similar streak of victories
between 1999 and 2003 when they won 33 tests
out of 36 played. This sequence culminated
in the last-gasp victory in extra-time in
the final against the Wallabies.
The ARU's statistician, Matthew Alvarez, has
come up with the interesting statistic: the
winners of each World Cup have had to
increase their ratio of wins in the two
years before the tournament starts.
New Zealand won only 50 per cent of their
Tests, for instance, before their 1987 World
Cup victory. Australia's ratio in 1991 was
64 per cent, and in 1999 it was 80 per cent.
England's ratio in 2003 was 89 per cent.
When I asked Alvarez what these statistics
might mean in terms of predicting a winner
for this World Cup, he said: "I would
recommend you check the form of the leading
challengers starting 18 or 24 months from
the World Cup, as it's likely the most
'winning' side going into the tournament
will be the team that brings home the
trophy. It may be that since 1987 coaches
have become more successful in bringing
their sides to a peak for the World Cup."
That certainly was the belief of Clive
Woodward, England's coach in 2003. He told
me he deliberately brought his strongest
team down to Australia and New Zealand in
He wanted to defeat the Wallabies and the
All Blacks on their home grounds. England
did this, not convincingly against the All
Blacks but in a magnificent manner against
the Wallabies in Melbourne. Woodward is
convinced that the momentum of these
victories, and the run of Test wins in the
two years before, was crucial to England
winning the 2003 World Cup.
This brings us to the Wallabies' inability
to win away from Australia against major
rugby nations in the past four years. To win
the World Cup the Wallabies will have to win
three knock-out finals in France, probably
against England or South Africa, New Zealand
and France in the final. Given their
appalling away record over the past four
years, this seems to be a challenge that is
beyond John Connolly's side.
The two tournaments the Wallabies have won,
in 1991 and 1999, were both outside
Australia. But the Wallabies had significant
victories against the All Blacks in New
Zealand in 1990 and 1998. Going into this
year's World Cup there was a significant
victory against the All Blacks in Melbourne
this year (which provides a glimmer of hope)
but no significant away victories.
A lack of victories away from home applies
to the Springboks. If you believe the
Woodward doctrine of making a statement by
winning away from home, Jake White, South
Africa's coach, made a serious blunder in
not bringing out his No 1 side to Australia
and New Zealand in the 2007 Tri Nations
tournament. And why did he not do this? In
my opinion, he lacked the confidence that
his No.1 side could win in Australia and New
Zealand. If the Springboks can't win away
tests, how can they expect to win a World
Cup in France when in successive weeks they
might have to defeat (if they beat England
in the pool round, a big ask in itself)
Wales, France, Australia or New Zealand in
Kearns's comment about the perennial
favouritism of the All Blacks to win the
World Cup has, if I'm not mistaken, a hint
of irony in it. For New Zealanders, Kearns
suggests, the All Blacks will always be
favourites to win the World Cup, even when
they don't deserve to be.
And here we get to the heart of the strength
and weakness of New Zealand rugby. The New
Zealand rugby public always insists on a
successful All Blacks side. Players and
coaches know they have to succeed to
survive. But the other side of the coin is
that this success (a 74 per cent winning
record in Tests since 1903, far and away the
best in world rugby) comes at a cost. There
is often an unrealistic pressure placed by
the New Zealand public on the All Blacks to
This pressure in world cups since 1987 has
fractured the All Blacks, rather than
uplifted them. This is the origin of the
"choking" allegation, that the All Blacks
choke at world cups because the public
expectations for the side are too high.
Former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen insists
that an important ingredient in the success
of his team in the 1999 World Cup was that
there was no intense pressure on the side to
win the tournament from the Australian
public. It may be that this has changed
since 1999. The Wallabies, with two world
cups and a final placing, are the most
successful team in the history of the World
Cup. It may be that the New Zealand disease
of over-expectation might be getting to the
Wallabies players and the coaches.
For the first time in a Wallabies World Cup
campaign there is talk and an evidence of
splits in the coaching and players' ranks.
The unacceptable behaviour of some senior
players, too, suggests that these pressures
might be getting to them. The sad truth is
that only weeks out from the World Cup, the
Wallabies are showing signs of a side
cracking up under the high expectations of
their supporters. Are the Wallabies about to
In my view, the most likely side to defeat
the All Blacks in this year's World Cup is
There is a pattern in world cups of home
sides doing well: New Zealand won at home in
1987; England lost their home final in 1991;
South Africa won at home in 1995, and
Australia narrowly lost their final in 2003.
There is a saying in French rugby - l'esprit
de clocher (winning within the sounds of the
church bells). French teams feel impelled to
win at home. They don't care so much about
winning away. France playing within the
sounds of the church bells, though, are
always difficult to defeat.
I also have a suspicion, which I hope is
unfounded, that the French will try to run
this tournament as a French World Cup (much
as South Africa ran the 1995 tournament as a
South African World Cup), rather than as a
world World Cup as Australia did in 2003.
My fear is that all the tricks indulged in
the past to make things difficult for
opponents playing in France will be brought
out of the box. French coach Bernard Laporte
will become Minister for Sport in the
Sarkozy government immediately after the
World Cup. Does this indicate an unhealthy
liaison between the French team and a new
government intent of restoring la gloire to
France? What better glory than a Rugby World
Already this year, Laporte has threatened to
have a World Cup referee, the Australian Stu
Dickinson, booted out of the tournament
because he didn't like some of his rulings.
And he has accused New Zealand and England
of being lax with their drug testing
regimes. These are worrying signs of
chauvinism from the World Cup hosts.
The World Cup tournament does not tell us
the best team in the world. It reveals the
best team in the tournament. Australia, of
all the major nations, has best understood
the notion that tournament play is different
from the usual run of tests during a season.
The equivalent to matchplay in golf, it
requires teams to peak for the one-off
matches in the finals.
The Wallabies, "punching above their
weight", have demonstrated they can do this
with their two World Cup triumphs. In
neither tournament were the Wallabies the
outright favourites to win. Only in 2003 has
the undisputed favourite won the tournament:
Australia were the favourites in 1987, New
Zealand in 1991, Australia in 1995, and
Australia/New Zealand in 1999.
Did England's win in the 2003 World Cup
start a trend, or was it an aberration?
SPIRO ZAVOS -
Morning Herald | Monday, 3 September
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