16 Nov

by Paul Waite
16 Nov 2003

Once again the game of rugby has shown itself to be a unique stage for a team which takes the field with fire and passion.

Once again the All Blacks retire to the meaningless also-rans match-up of the 3rd and 4th playoff in a Rugby World Cup having lost a semi-final everyone expected them to win on previous form.

With the clarity that hindsight lends, the New Zealanders had lost this test before they even did the haka. Some might point to the horrendously telegraphed intercept try that Spencer so generously delivered to Stirling Mortlock as the turning point, but that would be a mistake. Squabbling over this and that incident, or particular individual performances is to miss the point entirely.

The Wallabies simply took the field with a tsunami of motivation behind them and were unstoppable. For two whole weeks their backs had been whipped raw by the scorn and criticism of their own people. They had lost the Bledisloe Cup to New Zealand earlier in the season, and had under-performed in the Tri-Nations. Nobody gave them a hope in hell of winning this semi-final.

The perfect spot to be in, from Eddie Jones’ perspective. Out from the corner they came, with nothing to lose and everything to win. Add in that usual Australian technique and teamwork and they played like they had seventeen men on the field last night.

The All Blacks, for their part, have simply found their appropriate level in the rugby world order.

One of the most respected rugby writers on rugby in New Zealand, Terry McClean always used to say that what interested him most about the game was the way it revealed how men and teams reacted under great pressure. This All Black team was found out. It reacted poorly to the pressure of being denied posession for long periods of play and getting behind on the scoreboard. It lacked both the leadership and the teamwork basics which are needed to combat that kind of situation.

The fact that the All Blacks are, all aspects of the game considered, a mediocre team in World terms shouldn’t be a cause for dismay. They are what they are, and they did what they could. There should be none of the recrimination we saw after the 1999 World Cup.

Both team and coach gave of their best and were measured under the extreme pressure of a one-off sudden death test match in the Rugby World Cup. The message to All Black fans is: accept the truth as it stands.

Where to from here?

Well it was, after all, just a knockout tournament. A greatly important festival of rugby it may be, but in the end it is simply a single test loss, and should be seen in perspective.

Next season it will be business as usual, with the tour of England to New Zealand to look forward to. Hopefully John Mitchell will be of a mind to stay on as coach, if invited to do so since he has worked many changes thus far, and would undoubtedly move the team forward even further having learned the lessons this tournament has taught.

The player base at the top level has never been better and there is plenty of hope for the future of the New Zealand game on the world stage.

That’s the great thing about rugby. There’s always the next game to look forward to.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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