The Secret Player
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