World Cup lead-up repeating itself
To listen to the naysayers, New Zealand’s World Cup rugby hopes are hanging by a thread after successive test defeats. The 18-5 loss to South Africa in Port Elizabeth was excused easily enough. But the 25-20 defeat by Australia over the weekend is not easy to shrug off.
Graham Henry had named a fullstrength side, recalling all his rock stars, and the Tri Nations trophy was at stake.
So now, apparently, the All Blacks can’t win. Zac Guildford should never have been chosen ahead of Hosea Gear, Adam Thompson is the new Reuben Thorne, Sonny Bill Williams is more concerned about securing a lucrative contract next year and the All Blacks are showing early signs of choking. Don’t believe any of it. The All Blacks weren’t great in Brisbane, but they fought back well in the second half after being annihilated in the first 40 minutes.
More important, I don’t believe the two losses will have the slightest bearing on the World Cup results.
Just looking at history, the All Blacks couldn’t have had a worse lead-up to the 1987 World Cup. There was the hugely divisive 1986 Cavaliers tour of South Africa, and two-match suspensions for so many leading players. There was a series defeat by the Wallabies, notable for the resounding loss in Auckland. Then followed an unimpressive tour of France.
Before the World Cup, the All Blacks lost potential captain Jock Hobbs when he was forced into retirement by persistent concussions. Before the opening match, the captain, Andy Dalton, pulled a hamstring. He did not play a minute of the tournament.
From that series of disasters emerged arguably the finest All Black team ever to represent New Zealand. They won the World Cup as they pleased.
Looking at other sports, New Zealand’s lead-up to the 1992 cricket World Cup, which we part-hosted, couldn’t have been worse. They were hammered by England, and there was such disruption in the ranks that the national selectors discussed removing the captaincy from Martin Crowe, even raising the issue with him.
From that low point, New Zealand played brilliantly at the World Cup, with Crowe the tournament’s outstanding batsman and leader. But for bad luck (an untimely injury to Crowe) they would have beaten Pakistan to make the final.
What about athletics? Jack Lovelock was riven by doubt in Berlin as the 1936 Olympics began. Should he run the 1500m or the 5000m? He fretted and couldn’t decide, so team manager Arthur Porritt took upon himself what he called the ‘‘terrible burden’’ of making the decision for his runner.
Lovelock was told to run the 1500m and duly won the gold medal in world record time.
In 1976 John Walker arrived in Montreal a heavy favourite to win the Olympic 1500m. He looked less of a certainty when he was bundled out of the 800m in an early round, but he bounced back to win a famous gold medal.
The lesson is that a poor dress rehearsal does not mean a bad performance on opening night.
It can actually work the other way. The loss to Australia will firm the All Blacks’ resolve and they’ll be a more dangerous beast when the World Cup begins.