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The Rugby World Cup is the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge for rugby play­ers and rugby na­tions. Since the Cup was first staged in New Zealand a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago, there have been seven tour­na­ments, with only four na­tions tri­umphant – among them New Zealand (twice, both at home, in 1987 and 2011). I have had the priv­i­lege of coach­ing at three of these tour­na­ments – with Wales in 1999 and with the All Blacks in 2007 and 2011. And one thing I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate about Rugby World Cups is that world rank­ings and book­ies’ odds count for noth­ing. Why is it so chal­leng­ing to win a World Cup? Cup suc­cess is the ma­jor fo­cus for all rugby-play­ing na­tions, and although for other na­tions ev­ery test is im­por­tant, for the All Blacks there is the ex­pec­ta­tion they will win ev­ery one. Per­haps with good rea­son: in the pro­fes­sional era since 1996, the All Blacks’ win rate is an ex­tra­or­di­nary 83 per cent and over the last 10 years, 87 per cent. How­ever, be­cause of this men­tal­ity of try­ing to win ev­ery test (and I’m not crit­i­cis­ing it), come Rugby World Cup time, the All Blacks don’t im­prove as much as other na­tions. So we can ex­pect other teams to play bet­ter than they nor­mally do. In other words, the English will play bet­ter than when the All Blacks en­gaged them in 2014. To em­pha­sise the point, the All Blacks won 19 of their pre­vi­ous 20 test matches go­ing into the 2007 World Cup, whereas the French team that de­feated them in the quar­ter­fi­nal had lost 10-61 to the All Blacks in Welling­ton four months ear­lier. To the best of my knowl­edge, prior to 2011 the All Blacks con­cen­trated on one game at a time, re­serv­ing their fo­cus purely for the next game. In 2011 the fo­cus changed. The team looked at the to­tal chal­lenge, un­der­stood it and em­braced it. They also un­der­stood that the un­ex­pected would hap­pen and when it did they would be pre­pared for it. This strat­egy – the un­ex­pected is go­ing to hap­pen, so han­dle it – was born out of that 2007 World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal against France. Then, the first un­ex­pected event was los­ing both first-fives – Dan Carter and Nick Evans – plus oth­ers to in­jury. The sec­ond un­ex­pected was a ref­eree who al­lowed the op­po­si­tion to get away with mur­der. So in 2011 when Carter ripped his ad­duc­tor ten­don in prac­tice be­fore the fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing game against Canada, the un­ex­pected had hap­pened. But be­cause of our new key strat­egy, the at­ti­tude was: Colin Slade (Carter’s re­place­ment) will be out­stand­ing and we will all go up 10 per cent and play for Dan. But the chal­lenge mag­ni­fied when Colin also tore his ad­duc­tor in the quar­ter­fi­nal against Ar­gentina. Now Aaron Cru­den took over the No 10 jersey and Stephen Don­ald (aka Beaver) was whis­tled up from his white­bait­ing stand in the Waikato. Well, the un­ex­pect­eds hadn’t abated. Cru­den limped off with a se­ri­ous knee in­jury 33 min­utes into the fi­nal against France with the team ahead just 5-0. Sud­denly Beaver, the fourth-choice first-five, who hadn’t played rugby for weeks, was the All Blacks’ lynch­pin. The rest, as we know, is history. Beaver landed a vi­tal penalty goal and we beat the French 8-7. Thank good­ness we em­braced pres­sure and adopted the ‘un­ex­pected’ strat­egy! The All Black squad that heads to Eng­land will pos­sess world-class lead­ers with a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence in World Cups. They will be well aware of the chal­lenges ahead.

*Edited ex­cerpt from Sir Graham Henry Cel­e­brates the World Cups! 1987-2015, avail­able at Pa­per Plus, $39.99.

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