In almost exactly six months the All Blacks will be in Yokohama, playing South Africa in their first game at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand, having won the last two titles, will be favourites. What can we learn, not only from them, but from other World Cup champions, keeping in mind a mantra often repeated by Robbie Deans, that “there is no big secret (to the success of a rugby team), just a whole lot of little secrets.”
The All Blacks have been working at this one since Graham Henry took over in 2004. It got more intense in 2007 after the quarter-final debacle when they lost to France.
As well as the mental skills taught by Gilbert Enoka, they got a psychiatrist – former All White captain and Rhodes scholar, Ceri Evans – on board too. He, with Enoka and a small group of mental health experts, changed the All Black mindset.
In a 2016 radio interview with Kathryn Ryan, Evans said, “If you see pressure as a foe, something that’s going to limit you. If you see it as more of a test, that can raise your threshold, and raise the level of your response.”
As we all saw, in the excruciating cauldron of the 2011 World Cup final, the All Blacks raised their level. The trick for the likes of Eddie Jones, looking to inject a quick dose of mental strength into his fragile England team, is that the process for New Zealand was a lengthy one.
It took years for it to be embedded in the fabric of the side. Nobody who loses confidence during a rugby test then walks into a psychiatrist’s office, lies on a couch for an hour, and walks out bullet proof.
“You can’t keep all the old guys, but you can’t get rid of all the old guys,” Steve Hansen told me at the start of the 2015 season. “You have to have that experience to win.”
In 2015 the starting XV in the final in London had seven men who had run out for the 2011 final.
Of the starters in 2015, eight, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, and Joe Moody, barring injury, could be playing in the knockout games in Japan.
In other words, half the team will have played and won a World Cup final. That ratio certainly worked in ’15.
A COMMANDING FIRST-FIVE
Grant Fox (1987) and Dan Carter (2015) were the kings of the New Zealand victories. So were Michael Lynagh (1991) and Stephen Larkham (1999) for Australia, and Jonny Wilkinson (2003) for England, and Joel Stransky (1995) for South Africa.
Before this season’s Six Nations it seemed England’s Owen Farrell and Ireland’s Johnny Sexton would be the nerveless masters of the northern challenge. But Farrell’s temperament proved shaky, and Sexton has been a shadow of the player he can be.
Right now the All Blacks, with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga on call, look as well provided at No10 as anyone.
WEATHER THAT SUITS
The two most dynamic World Cup All Black sides were the 1995 team in South Africa, and the 2015 squad. In Africa they played on hard grounds under the sun, while the autumn of 2015 in Britain was, with the exception of downpours during the semifinal with the Springboks, like a blue sky postcard from the British Tourism Board.
In Yokohama in September and October the weather averages 23C, sometimes peaking at 26C. There will be rain, but not the bone chilling moisture that suits grinding forward play. If the All Blacks’ cunning plan is to run the ball, they’ve picked the right place.
You can win a World Cup on kicking alone. The worst final, by a street, was in Paris in 2007 when South Africa and England battled to see who could play the most boring, one dimensional rugby.
South Africa kicked five penalties, England kicked two. Nobody scored a try. And in South Africa I’m guessing that, quite rightly, nobody cared.
There are plenty of teams (please step forward England and Wales) who would happily win this year’s Cup on penalties. To be blunt, the All Blacks don’t have a goal kicker who you can guarantee will always be as accurate as Owen Farrell.
So, fingers crossed that the conditions, and referees who police the offside line, will make winning with tries a better prospect than penalties. Which brings us to…
Good on Wayne Barnes for finally admitting that, in his words “there was a forward pass in the lead-up to a French try against New Zealand” in the ’07 quarter-final against France in Cardiff.
Pray now that the idiots who appointed Barnes to the position then, in just his second season as a test referee, don’t do anything as stupid in Japan.
And above all, please, please, don’t have a crucial game refereed by the comedy duo, Romain Poite and Jerome Garces, stars of the side splitting French farce, “Oops-A-Daisy, He Was Offside But Let’s Only Have A Scrum Anyway”, that saved the Lions’ hash at Eden Park in 2017.
There are some big calls here for Hansen and Co. In 2015, when people were whining over the form of McCaw, Carter, Kaino, and Nonu, it was thankfully ignored.
The selectors basically had the team picked before Super Rugby had even started. It’s different this year. A major task now is to decide who the midfield pairing is.
I’d go for Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue, but would be the first to admit that selection has the risk of relying on gifted, but internationally inexperienced, players.
Who plays No6 remains a mystery box. I hate to pile more expectation on Tom Robinson, but could he be the wild card Nehe Milner-Skudder was last year?
With Scott Barrett turning into a dominant force in Super Rugby, having cover at lock isn’t a worry, and thanks to the Cinderella story of Karl Tu’inukuafe, neither is finding a tighthead prop to back up Owen Franks.
A massive bonus for the All Blacks. When you can unleash Scott Barrett, or Damian McKenzie, or either Dane Coles or Codie Taylor, in the second half, life is pretty good.
COACHING MIND GAMES
Eddie Jones often has a real lash at this one. Warren Gatland’s pretty good too (“England are chokers”). The problem is that if they’re facing the All Blacks, they have to unsettle Hansen. And does Hansen strike you as a man who curls up and cries when verbal barbs are flying?
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Publish date : 2019-03-29 03:31:42