Stop Press!! Common Sense Outbreak at NZRFU!
by Rick Boyd
8 Jan 2008
There has been considerable moaning from media lightweights — and from a few people who should know better — but with one notable drawback, the NZRFU’s decision to continue All Black coach Graham Henry’s tenure is an asset for All Black and New Zealand rugby.
First and foremost, it signals that maybe, just maybe, the NZRFU are finally getting the message the Rugby World Cup isn’t the be-all and end-all of international rugby.
And even intellectual pygmies (with which rugby is abundantly stocked) should be able to figure out why. Just think about it, the Rugby World Cup measures all the wrong things.
Take a four-test international series. To win one of those is damn hard. A team has to be measured against its opponent four times, and come up victorious three times to claim the series. There’s no room for flukes, lucky breaks and the bounce of the ball. A team that does it three times in a row over an opponent has proven its mettle.
But there’s no four-test series in the Rugby World Cup, for obvious reasons. The Rugby World Cup is a series of one-off tests, with only the semi-final and the final providing any real opposition; and the occasional quarter-final if a team strikes one of the major players (mainly due to the ongoing stupidity that is Rugby World Cup seedings).
A team has one chance to make or break in the Rugby World Cup. One close game, one fluke, one lucky break — one unbelievably imbecilic decision by a blind pommy git referee — and it’s all over red rover.
What does the Rugby World Cup measure? Fuck all.
But then it was never designed to. The Rugby World Cup was designed to be a great showcase of the game, a marvellous carnival of rugby giving the game peak profile to the world’s media in one fantastic marketing window.
It was never designed to find the world’s best team.
Understandably, the media went into a frenzy over the Rugby World Cup. That’s what it was designed for. Less understandably, casual fans followed, mistaking the high profile of the event for high value of rugby. Incomprehensibly, national rugby boards and many grass roots fans trailed blindly after them, deciding that a trophy with world in the title meant that it was the pinnacle of world rugby achievement.
But it’s not. It’s the pinnacle of world rugby profile.
Arguably, the "best" team in world rugby has won the Rugby World Cup three times in six tournaments New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1991 and England in 2003.
There are those deluded fools who say that the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of achievement because all teams are on an even footing and they go into it knowing they have to produce their best in this one event. Which is, of course, simplistic nonsense. Firstly, knowing they have to produce their best has absolutely no connection to actually doing their best. If teams knew how to produce their best on demand, they’d do it every time. And secondly, a one off game is still a poorer way of evaluating ability than a series, no matter how even a footing all teams are on or how much they want to produce their best in one event. It is utter, utter nonsense to think otherwise.
It’s high time the Rugby World Cup was put in its place. Graham Henry and his brains trust took the All Blacks to a string of victories which was the envy of every other team in world rugby. Tri-Nations wins, Lions tour wins, Grand Slam wins no one should ask more of a coach than that. Yet one poor refereeing decision is supposed to turn that brilliant record into failure? How stupid do you have to be?
Ok, so he made a few mistakes. Resting All Blacks during the Super 14 may have been one, it may not. The rotational policy may have been one, or the manner the rotational policy was applied.
The demands on international players in the contemporary era are unreasonable, and the stress modern international athletes are subjected to makes them brittle. On the one hand the team needs players who are match fit, hardened against quality opposition and with enough time together to form working combinations. On the other hand the teams needs players that are fresh, in peak form and injury free – not a bunch of stale, exhausted players carrying a plethora of injuries. It’s a fine line, and many other cliches.
Personally, I think that the rotational policy is a matter of necessity while the international season remains so long and so demanding. And New Zealand has the depth to use it effectively. But what absolutely must happen is that key players have enough time in their key positions to be able to form combinations. It was absolute madness to throw Luke McAlister and Mils Muliaina into the French quarter final in only their third test together.
And let’s look at that Rugby World Cup quarter final, since it seems Henry’s career hung in the balance over one solitary test. Firstly, the All Black forwards did all that could be asked of them. The team had heaps of ball to play with and a lot of it from go-forward positions. Secondly, the All Black backs were flat and awkward. Some of this was due to the poor combinations, some due to Factor Three, excellent French play — particularly in defence — and some due simply to a poor day on the park. Fourthly, the All Blacks were underdone, and no one can deny it. The length of time since earlier tests, the soft pool games, and the decision by Scotland to play their B team against New Zealand in a gutless display of cynical gamesmanship that should be stamped out severely by the IRB. If the All Blacks had played a test series against France, they would have slaughtered them in the following tests. They needed one hard game to get them firing, but in the Rugby World Cup there are no second chances.
But all of those factors meant only that the game was close. The All Blacks were in front, they had dominated play, they had scored tries, they had done enough. And that’s where the real decider, Factor Five, came into play. An inexperienced referee, frozen in the headlights of world cup finals, gave one of the worst displays of test match officiating ever seen and tipped the balance of the match in France’s favour. Apart from the iniquitous direction of modern refereeing that sanctions constant offsides and interference off the ball, referee Barnes was too scared to give one penalty against France in the second half, despite a string of blatant offences that are there for all the world to see on video. And when France passed ridiculously forward to score the try that illegally stole them the game, Barnes was oblivious.
In summary, Barnes wasn’t the reason the game was close – that was the All Blacks’ own fault. But he definitely was the reason the French gained the winning score in that close game. And that’s a disgrace.
Graham Henry and his team must accept responsibility for the Rugby World Cup quarter final loss, but only for the factors under their control. And they should not outweigh Henry’s excellent test record since 2004, they should not even come close.Therefore the decision by the NZRFU to allow Henry and Co. to continue this excellent record is to be applauded, not least because it shows that the Rugby World Cup, while a worthy prize, is not the only prize, and not even the most important prize.
The one negative from this is the loss of Robbie Deans to the Wallabies. I would have been perfectly happy had Deans got the All Black job. Maybe it was time for a new face to have a go. He would have done a sterling job. But then I’m perfectly happy for Henry to continue too.
It’s just a shame that such a great coaching talent as Deans is now offshore. And I feel bound to say, this is not a feature of the modern game that sits at all easily with me. I know it’s a professional sport and rugby people naturally seek the maximum income from the sport they can. I do myself, after all (peanuts though that may be).
Call me a dinosaur, but for me a New Zealander is a New Zealander and should be putting his efforts into furthering All Black rugby. At a pinch, coaching Wales or Ireland might be seen as career development that would not adversely affect New Zealand. Good for the game of rugby (which is certainly my excuse for living and working in Western Australia, trying to educate these isolated heathens about the true, ancient and noble game – before you accuse me of raging hypocrisy).
But to coach Australia, South Africa or France and directly attempt to undermine New Zealand rugby, using all the knowledge and experience New Zealand rugby has supplied — no, that’s not on. Sorry Robbie, but there it is. Bad enough Russell "Turncoat" Coutts sold his soul for twenty pieces of silver; but Robbie Deans? A rugby man, an All Black, a mainlander? That I should live to see the day!
Which only leaves us to hope that Henry and his All Blacks mercilessly smash, humiliate and destroy Deans and his Wallabies this year.
Let’s have just deserts all round.