18 Sep

How to win friends and influence people
by Tracey Nelson
18 Sep 2009

If we thought John Hart and John Mitchell were All Black coaches who could raise the ire of the New Zealand public like no other, then step aside everyone – because while the current coaching trio may not be winning on the field, off the field they are excelling in statements that have wound New Zealand rugby supporters up like a spring.

Let’s start with that C word – Confidence. Or should that be contradiction. Because certainly there have been plenty of contradictory statements stemming from the 2009 All Blacks. The lineout is just the start, where on one hand we have Steve Hansen stating that the All Blacks haven’t lost confidence and that they aren’t going to change what they’re doing because "Our issue with the lineout is not that we can’t lineout, it’s just that we’re making mistakes."

Yet Graham Henry then comes out and says "I guess it’s about confidence. If you don’t hit the jumpers early, then confidence starts to wane and that’s what happened." And listening to Andrew Hore talking about lineouts in the lead up to the test against Australia in Wellington this weekend using langauge such as "hopeful" and "we think" and "we’re pretty sure" just reinforces the fact that confidence is definitely down.

There have been the recent comments about rugby being a simple game. Henry confirmed for us that "It’s a basic game. You have to have quality first-phase ball. You have to build a foundation through the set-piece and get across the advantage line. That sets the platform." Hmm, yet Wayne Smith and Henry himself both still back playing an expansive game that hasn’t come to fruition all this season because we are failing to win our set pieces and get front foot ball.

Last year we were told the side "would have learned a great deal from the defeat" after losing the first test to the Wallabies in Sydney, and we were told at the start of the Tri-Nations this year that "we are a work in progress". But have we made any progress? Forward progess, that is?

Comments such as "the sort of pressure Habana applies at kick is a good lesson for our blokes" seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as the All Blacks time and again have failed to put any pressure on their opposition at the restart and actually managed to put pressure on themselves last week in Hamilton by kicking two restarts out on the full.

Equally we’ve heard this week that "You can’t (win games) if you’re not able to execute your set piece platforms or catch and pass. We’ve got to find the players who we know can go out and perform on that stage accurately" and yet Joe Rokocoko keeps his spot on the wing despite reaching double digits for the number of knock-ons he’s contributed this Tri-Nations.

That was followed up with the re-call of Neemia Tialata who was initially dropped after the first two Tri-Nations tests due to poor form, with the reasoning "We are a bit concerned about the amount of football he’s played in recent times, but we think that’s the best selection". Sorry? Can you repeat that? Owen Franks, who has more than held his own at tighthead prop and has proved to have a very high workrate around the field, is supposedly being "rested" and isn’t being made a scapegoat for the loss in Hamilton. Quite what Franks needs a rest from, averaging only 51 minutes play in each of the five tests he’s played in over the last 8 weeks – that works out to be around half an hour of playing per week – is anyone’s guess. But that’s what we’re being told.

Ah, and don’t forget that despite the All Blacks being our premier professional side – the side that all other players, teams and competitions in this country have to take a back seat to – that at the end of day it is, according to Hansen, "just a game". He reckons that public pressure on him to get the lineout working right was nothing compared to his previous life working in the police force. Well, if the All Blacks’ lineout implodes again this weekend he may just need a police escort to leave the stadium.

It’s been all well and good for the coaches to tell us that the players have the right attitude, and that they’re trying the best. But I’m afraid that when you’re an All Black trying your best isn’t good enough – you need to be better than your best, because that’s what wearing the black jersey is all about. Excuses about the high error rates from Hansen by suggesting that if there were no mistakes in sport Roger Federer would win every Grand Slam missed the obvious point that Roger Federer doesn’t consistently double-fault on his own serve the way the All Black lineout has tended to this season.

So thank goodness for Dan Carter who has come out with the only worthwhile statement this week, saying "Pressure is just part of the territory and you’ve got to use it to your advantage." Let’s hope the All Blacks can channel that pressure, because a loss this weekend will make them the only All Black team to ever suffer three home defeats in one season. If the coaches want to quote Lombardi by quipping "they have not built any statues yet for critics and wannabes" they may also want to consider another of his quotes:

If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?

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