EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
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.