‘We did not know what would go wrong but knew something would’
the other teams actually used the World Cup as a mountain. They rose to their performance and that was catching us out. Suddenly, we would be under pressure and rattled, and wouldn’t play our normal game. So we needed to find ways to lift our level.”
The trick, according to Smith, was mental. This time New Zealand expected something to go wrong, they just had no idea what it would be. An epidemic among their fly-half stocks proved to be the defining moment in their 2011 campaign, as first Dan Carter, then Colin Slade and lastly Aaron Cruden, in the final, all went down.
“It’s a seven-week window where everything is very intense, and you can’t possibly know what is going to happen, but you do know that something is going to throw you off track,” Smith says. “That was our preparation: we didn’t know what would go wrong, but we knew something would, be it the opposition performing well in a game or referees going against us, or a run of injuries. We tried to think of these what-if situations. I probably remember it so well because it turned out exactly that way, with three 10s going down.”
The atmosphere throughout New Zealand during the tournament was sensational – “As a Kiwi, I was proud of the way we embraced it,” Smith admits, as the All Blacks cruised through the pool stages. Wins over Tonga and Japan were followed by a convincing victory over France to put some of the ghosts of 2007 to bed. But by this point, they had lost Carter after a groin injury in training.
Argentina were ultimately finished off at Eden Park by late Kieran Read and Brad Thorn tries, after seven penalties from Piri
Weepu, but now
Slade, Carter’s replacement, was also sidelined. A semi-final lay ahead against the old enemy, Australia, who had defeated the All Blacks earlier that year to win the Tri-nations, with New Zealand turning to Cruden, their third-choice fly-half, to start. Stephen Donald, quietly fishing on the Waikato river, was an emergency call-up. You could forgive Smith and the rest of the side for wondering when their luck would turn. They responded to that adversity with what Smith remembers as one of the great All Blacks displays of his career, having been thrust into a leadership role in the backline with Carter and Mils Muliaina ruled out through injury. “Even now, I can look back on that semi-final as one of the three or four times with the All Blacks where everything went right,” he explains. “It was a pleasure to play in, when you see how focused and motivated we all were. A lot of the work that went in before the World Cup came to a head that night.
“If we were going to lose a World Cup on home soil, let it be anyone but our neighbours, Australia. It would have been hard enough to not win it, but to see Australia lift up the trophy at Eden Park, jeez, I don’t know how I would have been able to live with that.”
If the semi-final might have been close to a perfect performance, the final was anything but – a cagey, tense scrap. It is remembered for Thierry Dusautoir’s astonishing tackling and Donald holding his nerve to land the match-deciding penalty, ending a national 24-year wait for a World Cup title. Knowing what to face against France was nearly impossible, a side defeated by Tonga in the pool stages with their players and head coach Marc Lievremont at each other’s throats. No one expected France to win, and they thrived off that.
“I’ve been in that position myself in other games and it’s just liberating,” Smith explains. “You go out and all you want to do is play, you have nothing to lose, and you love it. They played better than they had all tournament. One little moment and history could have been different. We just hung in.
“We didn’t want to become rattled like in World Cups before. Those were the games at previous World Cups that New Zealand lost. We didn’t play great in that final, but we did keep our composure, just.” Faced with adversity, this time New Zealand did not wilt.
Mercurial centre: Conrad Smith in World Cup action