One Monkey Down, One To Go
by Paul Waite
18 Oct 2011
When the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies in the World Cup semi-final this Sunday just past, they ripped one monkey off their backs. This coming Saturday, in the Final, they have the opportunity to do the same with the other one.
Beginning with that humbling loss as defending World Champions in the 1991 semi-final to Australia New Zealand have built an unenviable reputation as ‘chokers’ in World Cups. In 1995 they choked again, poisoning rumours notwithstanding, against hosts South Africa in the final.
Come 1999 and they again looked to be the team to beat with some nice momentum going into the semi-final only to be dumped out of the competition by a fired-up French side which flicked that imponderable Gallic switch at half-time, and left the Blacks eating their dust.
Forward to 2003 and Australia once again were their nemesis as they out-thought the All Blacks by cleverly targeting their ball-carriers and half-back. Once again the form team going into the tournament they were kicked to touch by the host nation.
In 2007 the hosts, France, were again the All Blacks executioner in a controversial 18-20 loss in the quarter-final in which referee, Wayne Barnes made a series of questionable but crucial decisions against the men in black. Whether or not he was to blame for the All Blacks earliest ever World Cup exit is still hotly debated, but the record books stand.
Here in 2011, the planets seem to have moved into an alignment which is eerily similar to 1987. Once again we have a final in New Zealand between the All Blacks and France. Again the All Blacks campaign has been disrupted by injury to a key player, skipper Andy Dalton in 1987, No.10 Dan Carter in 2011. As a direct result of that in 1987 we saw the rise of David Kirk at halfback to lead the All Blacks to victory as skipper. In 2011 we have Piri Weepu at halfback stepping up to perform a similarly crucial leadership role.
Leaving aside all the touchy-feely astrological musings, the All Blacks undoubtedly have genuine World Cup momentum on their side. In contrast to the faux-momentum of all previous tournaments barring 1995. The strength and accuracy of the display from the forwards against Australia in the semi-final is emphatic proof.
This was no questionable victory based on some quirky refereeing decision. It was hard-as-nails rugby and as visceral as it gets. The All Black pack served up a peformance which was in keeping with the very best that the team has put together in its history. The way they stamped their control over the physical exchanges, took the Wallabies in a vise-like grip and never let go would have brought a smile to All Black greats such as Meads and Lochore. Sitting next to the latter in this test, I suspect even Fred Allen, perfectionist and most successful All Black coach ever, would have admired the way they went about their work.
Add to that a smattering of genius from Dagg setting up that early try to Ma’a Nonu, and you have the perfect recipe for Wallaby a la Creme (Creamed Wallaby).
There were so many areas in which the All Blacks improved as compared with the last few months, that you would almost suspect them of hiding their light under a bushell. Take the aerial dominace as an example. Cory Jane and Israel Dagg were imperious at the back fielding the high kick. At the breakdown the numbers were tremendous, whereas previously they had been light. You can always tell when the All Blacks are on song by watching that Black Wave crashing over the opposition like a tsunami and continually blowing them off the ball.
Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith are also due a lot of praise for their strategies in this campaign. Watching the semi-final unfold one of the most telling stories was the way the All Blacks continually targetted David Pocock, running the ball at him thereby involving him in tackles rather than leaving him free to forage for turnover ball. As well as that the general tactical approach, keeping the Wallabies pinned in their own half, using the forwards to drive the ball rather than fling it wide too often, go for the odd drop-kick, and force penalties. The whole package was designed to beat Australia in this one-off test, and it worked perfectly.
The monkey on the backs of the All Blacks placed there by two semi-final losses to the Wallabies in World Cups is now gone.
The remaining monkey is the one which comes from the two defeats by France in the World Cup knock-out stages.
To use a quotation from that most famous of all New Zealanders, Sir Edmund Hilary, let’s hope the All Blacks can knock the bastard off!by