The Se­cret Player

Rugby World - - CONTENTS -

ONE THING I’ve no­ticed over my many years in rugby is that New Zealand are re­ally, re­ally good at it. That’s the kind of in­sight your man on the in­side can pro­vide. It’s a slightly emas­cu­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing against their na­tional team (they call them­selves the All Blacks – you can have that for free). All week lead­ing into the game you build your­self up in camp, telling your­selves they’re only hu­man, prick them and they bleed and all that. One coach even re­sorted to fo­cus­ing his pre­view video solely on their er­rors to get us feel­ing good about the pos­si­bil­ity of mirac­u­lously pulling off a win.

Un­for­tu­nately, we were kid­ding our­selves. Even Cit­i­zen Kane will have a long out-take reel of missed cues and fluffed lines stashed away, and on the Satur­day we were sub­jected to another drub­bing. For al­most ev­ery team in the world, be­liev­ing you can beat the ABs re­quires Wal­ter Mitty- es­que self- de­cep­tion, as his­tory, form, odds, per­cent­ages and com­mon sense sug­gest there will be only one re­sult.

The delu­sion can get you pretty far, but there will al­ways be a point in the game when it is over­whelmed by the re­al­i­sa­tion that these re­lent­less, stony-faced rugby freaks are never go­ing to fold. In the 60th minute, you might spot Dan Carter whis­per­ing to his backs that there is space in be­hind, but your fa­tigue, and the pre­ci­sion of his chip, leaves you pow­er­less to do any­thing about it. Or you’ll be on their five-me­tre line, ev­ery­one ex­pect­ing the clear­ance kick, only for their tight­head to hit a short line and make a 30-me­tre bust. At that point, it can all get a bit much, and any pre-match talk of vic­tory seems like a dis­tant fairy tale.

I once got beaten by the All Blacks at another game we in­vented and they’ve per­fected – Bri­tish Bull­dog. Back in 2005, the kit spon­sor of both the Lions and New Zealand thought it would fun to get us to­gether to try the play­ground favourite and film it for an ad­vert a few months be­fore­hand. I think in the ad men’s heads they ex­pected us to go full bhuna and the cre­ative types seemed dis­ap­pointed at our half-ar­sed ef­forts. It was gen­tle­men’s agree­ments all round, although guys like By­ron Kelle­her and Richie McCaw, still drunk from their end- of-au­tumn tour drinkies the pre­vi­ous night, did get prop­erly stuck into some of their fel­low Ki­wis.

I was just happy to be there. Rugby is the one sport where no mat­ter how far you progress in your shal­low pool, there will al­ways be ten guys in your po­si­tion bet­ter than you, all liv­ing on an oth­er­wise point­less is­land in the South Pa­cific. So I was in­trigued to spend a whole day with them, and try to fig­ure out why they were so much bet­ter than me in my cho­sen sphere.

Sure enough, they were only hu­man, and per­fectly pleas­ant chaps to chat to. How­ever, as rugby play­ers, while they had the same knob­bly limbs and func­tional mus­cle mass as we north­ern­ers, ev­ery­thing about them just seemed big­ger (mind you, shav­ing your en­tire body does help in that re­spect, a habit they all seemed to fol­low), griz­zlier and tougher.

McCaw had this notable depth to his torso, sug­gest­ing he had an ex­tra set or two of trans­verse ab­dom­i­nals. Ma’a Nonu had thighs twice the size of my own, along with the weird eye­liner and beads in his hair. And I got hold of Joe Roko­coko in one round and flinched at the sheer solid ge­om­e­try of the man. Oh my, it was like putting your hands on a mar­ble idol.

Over­all, it was a pretty odd ex­pe­ri­ence, with the forced feel of con­trac­tual obli­ga­tion hang­ing over it from start to fin­ish. Aside from that, it was just 40- odd guys muck­ing about in a field, worlds away from all the Sky-style ‘bat­tle for the ages’ hype to come.

How­ever, chummy as it was, there was a se­ri­ous point to take away from the day. None of the Lions guys talked about it openly, of course, but I can’t have been the only one who, af­ter see­ing – and in my case fondling – all that New Zealand power up close, knew that we had no chance of win­ning down there.

Show of strength The All Blacks per­form the haka

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