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How to beat the All Blacks

Spiro Zavos 3/9/07

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 justifiable favouritism.

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 2003.

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 the finals?

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 succeed.

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 "choke"?

In my view, the most likely side to defeat the All Blacks in this year's World Cup is France.

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 Cup victory.

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 - Sydney Morning Herald | Monday, 3 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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