For those of you still wondering how on earth the All Blacks can climb back to that special place of ultimate respect they used to enjoy in World Rugby, after eight years in the doldrums the answer is surprisingly simple. But first let’s consider how the present situation came about in the first place.
The cause has been under discussion by the rugby fraternity in this country for the past couple of years, and on this website for the past seven. The problem has been a lack of committment to putting it to rights.
It could be that the truth is too unpalatable for some people who should know better. After 100 years of dominance built on the foundation of hard, uncompromising and technically superb forward-play, they might find it a bit too difficult to swallow the accusation that New Zealand rugby has gone soft and stupid. But that’s what’s happened alright.
John Mitchell appeared, initially, to be the man to redeem us from this ignominious plight. He made all the right noises, going on at length about honing our set-pieces and getting the basics of the game right. It all looked like it might be falling into place until the 2003 season, Rugby World Cup Year itself.
We saw from the outset against England that the basic advice “pick your kicker first” had been ignored, and against the likes of the French ‘B’ side that the lineout was as vulnerable and naive as ever. It amused me to hear the excuses being put forward to explain that performance – it would never have been so in Colin Meads’ day. Other areas looked amazingly good at times. The scrum with a Hewett – Hammet – Sommerville front row, and the Jack – Thorn locking partnership was powerful enough to destroy any opposition. It bulldozed both the South Africans and Australians into small pieces of rubble. But this wasn’t persevered with.
As the World Cup drew nearer, it became more confusing. Sitting and watching at home, we believed the awkwardness was probably due to Mitchell holding his side back to thwart video analysis. During the World Cup pool-play things became even worse. At a time when Mitchell should have been giving his chosen first XV time to gel, we had a blizzard of team changes seemingly designed to confuse the bejaysus out of the opposition, players and fans alike. The injuries could only explain it to a small degree.
And then there was the gameplan. What a disappointment that turned out to be, didn’t it? Eschewing all pretence of basing our game on our set-pieces and time-honoured rugby techniques, Mitch and Deans set out to play sevens-style FastRugby, and to try and beat the World’s best teams by chucking the ball wide and running fast, mixed up with a couple of nominated “ball-carriers” taking it up the guts in the forwards.
The naivete of the plan, as it was revealed, was breath-taking. The clearest sign of its demise was the Pool game against Wales. The Welsh fielded a ‘B’ side which had nothing to lose that day, and they ended up embarassing the All Blacks by showing how vulnerable and one-dimensional they were.
Personally, with the Australian semi-final still well in the future, I was of the opinion that we were still hiding our light under a bushell, and that the gameplan against the Welsh was simply too stupid to be The One. Unfortunately, I was completely wrong in that assumption. The Aussies picked us off like fish in a barrel because that was our One And Only gameplan.
Enough of the World Cup. To use the vernacular, it’s a done deal, and simply represents another chance missed, and another monument to the incredible arrogance or stupidity (I’m not sure which) that we seem to have amongst the leading lights of the game in this country, that they can imagine we can beat The World without paying our dues to the basic tenets of the game – tenets that WE invented and more or less owned at one time. Aside from that, there is the almost criminal neglect of the legacy left to us by 100 years of All Black success.
So what of the remedy? Remedying the situation remains as simple and yet problematic as it has been since 1997, when we saw the last of the kind of players who understood how to play this game at the highest level and win.
In my view it’s no accident that these players spanned the amateur and professional eras. Paradoxically, the “amateur” players were in many ways more “professional” than the current crop. In all areas, save time to train, they had the wood on our cossetted, overpaid pros. This isn’t surprising. The amateur was like a self-employed, self-motivated man in business: out on his own to a great extent, and therefore forced to be much more resourceful and independent. If it all turned to brown-stuff he and his team-mates didn’t have a corporate support structure to turn to – they had to bloody sort it out themselves. In short the buck (no pun intended) stopped with them, out on a muddy paddock where they had to put the hard yakka and the leadership on the line or lose with nobody to blame but themselves.
These days we have pros who put in a few hours training down the gym, do some promos, and get a round of golf in the afternoon. They have big salaries, big sponsorships, and most importantly, they are part of a much larger organisation whether it be a Super 12 Franchise, or the AllBlacks.com juggernaut. They feel part of a corporate structure where there is hierarchical accountability. If the team fails week to week, there is pressure on them sure – but the ideas on how to sort it out are shared and mostly lie with “management” don’t they? In the old days, there was much less of this and we saw players taking real responsibility for thinking out problems off and on the pitch.
For evidence of this look no further than the fact that we see hardly any trace of real leadership out on the pitch these days. Why is it so hard to pick out an All Black captain from season to season? The answer is there are no candidates honing their leadership skills out of the paddock from week to week in the lower levels of the game. Instead there are too many walkie-talkies, too many coaches opting to run their teams like a bunch of robots from the sideline, and too much “corporatisation” taking responsibility away from the players which is the underpinning problem. To make matters worse, it’s a circular problem – there are no skippers worth a damn so coaches control everything; the coach controls everything so no skippers develop – ad inifinitum until someone deliberately breaks the cycle.
The remedy for our problems lies in the lessons provided by the way we did things in the past, and the mindset which fits the New Zealander playing rugby like a supple leather boot.
First and foremost, we need to give the game on the pitch back to the players on the pitch. Coaches should stop trying to control everything that goes on, and stop taking full responsibility for it as well – in a genuine sense, not in the lip-service sense we sometimes see when players are interviewed after-match and come out with the “no excuses” cliches. We need to develop some real captaincy before we can expect to see the All Blacks being able to change their gameplan to suit opposition tactics, once more.
Secondly, there needs to be a follow-through at all levels on John Mitchell’s initial promise to respect and re-develop the basics of the game and in particular in the forwards. The aim is to rediscover that hard-nosed-but-canny attitude that we were reknowned for a decade ago.
Let’s be clear. This second requirement stems mightily from the first. Give the game back to the players and you once more re-establish an environment for that special kind of kiwi ingenuity and capacity to do the extraordinary which lies latent in every true New Zealander.
As an addendum to this, we should also rid ourselves of this bloody silly idea that the game has to be “entertaining”. The game simply has to be WON, as the Poms showed us last year in Sydney. If New Zealand teams focussed themselves on playing no-frills rugby based on forward power and skills in the tight, the platform it provides will be more than enough to give the backs a chance to entertain.
The emphasis at all levels should be on developing the team to dominate opponents and win, not on entertainment.
We now have a new All Black coach – Graham Henry. His assistants, although yet to be officially announced, will be Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen. On paper, this represents the most powerful coaching team the All Blacks have ever had. All three could be The All Black Coach in their own right, and all three know a tremendous amount about the game and coaching it.
In the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final against Australia, we were very simply picked off by the canny Eddie Jones, who had our number as early as the post-match media briefing after the final Bledisloe Cup game in Auckland. In Graham Henry the All Blacks now have the man who out-thought and out-manoevred the legendary Brumbies and Wallabies coach Rod MacQueen in the early days of the Super 12, so that should be a thing of the past on his watch.
Another weak area for the All Blacks last year was the defence which Wayne Smith was notable for strengthening when he was All Black coach in 2001. Steve Hansen is simply an outstanding coach all-round, having brought the Crusaders success at Super 12, and improved Wales out of sight in a relatively short time. The coaching team is shaping up to be one where Smith takes special responsibility for the backs, and Hansen the forwards with Henry overseeing it all and driving it using his inimitable capacities for analysis and planning.
There are no question marks over the ability of any of these three, but there are important questions to be answered in this coming season. The first is how they will work together, and the second is whether they will collectively realise that in order to fix New Zealand rugby, they have to take a couple of steps back first, as outlined above.
Only time will tell. This coming season and the next will at least provide a good yardstick of what we can expect. With England visiting for a two-test tour this year, and the Lions coming the year after, we won’t be lacking for evidence for or against.
Whatever the outcome there is, as always, only one thing left to say at this point: