‘We did not know what would go wrong but knew some­thing would’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.