Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Raining on Our Parade

(Which it did, last Wednesday in Wellington, as the crowds gathered to ticker-tape the All Blacks).

First, let's be clear that I was as wound up and emotionally invested in the Rugby World Cup as any Kiwi. I gritted my teeth during the first part of the quarter-final against Argentina; silently shook and bit my nails until around the 79th minute of the semi-final versus Australia; and sat ashen-faced through most of the final. Somehow despite all the intellectual defences, I couldn't escape the shared cultural yearning (there must be some German expression for that) that the All Blacks should win the damned World Cup.

And, I should own this, becuse I've criticised other people for it: at the end I was just relieved rather than joyous. We won on the scoreboard, but it wasn't convincing. Had we been lucky? Did we really deserve it? I know we couldn't really expect a Brazil 1970 or New Zealand 1987 moment, but the way we won just seemed a little anticlimactic. Maybe in another post I'll unpick that disappointment from a sporting angle.

Having made my own confession, and now that I've woken from my fevered dream and am once again conversant with concepts such as fairness and dignity, let me make the following little quibbles.

1.It's really a pity that no one associated with the All Blacks saw fit to congratulate or acknowledge the French for their performance. They silenced anyone who had written them off and were probably the better team on the night. Yes, they might have committed some skulduggery in the rucks, but we're not entirely innocent of that either. And even if you don't feel like being civil to them directly, offering an acknowledgement is a sign of dignity. Sean Fitzpatrick used to offer "full credit to the opposition", even after a 50-point shellacking.

2. The relentless booing of Quade Cooper during the tournamentwas dumb, boring and boorish. OK, so there were the cheap shots on Richie McCaw. But as noted above, the All Blacks are hardly angels either. I used to be embarassed that I had to support a team with Richard Loe in it. I'm not sure whether there was really an ethnic dimension to the treatment of Cooper but it definitely went too far. I admit that during the tournament I was supporting anyone against Australia, but that was mainly because I thought they were our biggest threat. I'm still rather terrified by the prospect of a backline including Genia, Ioane, Beale and O'Connor along with Cooper for the forseeable future. God help us if they find themselves a tight five.

3. I guess it's true that ultimately winning by 1 point is as good as 20, it's not how you win but whether you win, etcetera. Recognising that much is itself a kind of humility, so that's progress.  But having embraced the Dark Side, let's be consistent. I never again want to hear from the New Zealand media about "boring" or "negative" sides from the Northern Hemisphere.  In the semi-final, we did to Australia what South Africa at their best occasionally  do to us: played a territorial game, put them under pressure, and kicked the penalties. In the final, we were like a particularly nervous version of England at their most conservative.

I also don't want to hear endless moaning about bad luck or poor referee's decisions. As we saw clearly during the World Cup, a number of sides had major grievances with how they were refereed, and Wales' whole tournament was derailed in a single moment. Let's acknowledge that there are swings and roundabouts and we probably got the rub of the greeen this time.

4. Could the media and people in general do any more to get things out of proportion and set everyone up for failure and disappointment? Endless repetitions of "24 years of hurt" (actually, from 1987-91 we were reigning champions, so strictly speaking any "hurt" has only been going for 20 years), and "how much it would mean" to the players, the coach, and the nation's collective psyche raised the stakes so much that collapsing under the pressure was almost the only possible response. Yes, everyone loves World Cups and given our track record it's about time New Zealand won the thing. But a tournament is by its nature fickle and no matter how good you are you can't legislate against a confluence of circumstances that can knock you out.Don't forget that football giants Germany haven't won anything for 16 years, and Argentina for 18 years.

On average the All Blacks win an excellent 3 out of 4 games against top opposition (Australia, France, England and South Africa) But that fourth game can occur at any time. And there's no guarantee of winning big games. New Zealand does well in general by having a good all round mix of skill and power. But player for player (especially without Dan Carter) you'd be hard pressed to claim that we are obviously superior to other teams. At present, Australia has a better back line, and France, South Africa and England would all slightly shade us in the tight forwards. So being the No 1 team and not winning the World Cup are perfectly compatible. Maybe we could have a little more celebration of the 10 Tri Nations titles and the unbeaten record in the Northern Hemisphere since 2002. That's what the Australians would do.

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