Could the result of this year’s Rugby World Cup mark the beginning of the end for New Zealand Rugby?
AN inalienable hush blanketed itself across a fern-toting country in October, 2003 – the manifestation of a feeling that was once believed lost on the highway of sporting failures.
In bars and living rooms the length of two islands, the eyes of a nation sat jilted as the shaven-headed Australian halfback leant over a recently penalised ruck and screeched at his opposition, “Four more years, boys! Four more years!” – words that carved themselves a cradle in the mind of every New Zealand rugby supporter, reminding them that while losing to Australia is painful, world cup defeat is the true definition of agony. Oh, and that George Gregan can really be cartoonishly evil when he wants to be.
And so, we packed up our hopes and dreams for world cup glory, dismissed the balding-sage who lead us to believe we were “on a journey” of some sort, and welcomed in an experienced helmsman called ‘Henry’, issuing him with a task, four years in the making, that many before him had failed to realise: a Rugby World Cup victory.
Four years later, we’ve come full circle and find ourselves standing on the cusp of another Rugby World Cup conquest. The sixth Rugby World Cup that begins in France this weekend yields perhaps much more than a chance to see whether or not four years of meticulous planning can materialise itself in the form of an All Blacks victory, but rather a chance to ponder just what this may usher in for New Zealand rugby as a whole. Twenty teams will be competing in this year’s tournament across a host of venues in France (not to mention a couple in Wales and Scotland as well), with the All Blacks expected to saunter into the knock-out stages of the tournament, having dispatched the wirily Scots, the fervent Italians, and the regrettably quaint prospects of Romania and Portugal, the former being a side comprised entirely of amateur players.
From there, New Zealand’s best will meet the unfortunate runner-up of Pool D, Ireland or Argentina, in the quarterfinals, before choking on a feast of either Australian, French, South African, or god forbid, even English cuisine in Paris a week or two later (or so the rest of the world will have you believe).
The Rugby World Cup has firmly fixed itself as the jewel in the crown of international rugby and for a nation that has produced statistically (and, quite frankly, realistically) the most successful test match team in the world, its acquisition is truly symbolic in the realisation that we are, quite simply, the unquestioned best rugby nation on earth. And yet, despite this All Black side’s motif of success laced with success, there still remains the ghoulish prospect that they could once again fail to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy, the consequences of which could be dire for the game we have come to call our own. Radio Sport’s Graeme Moody has seen the rise and fall of the country’s hopes on the back of many an All Black side on the back of more than 25 years as a sporting journalist, and 10 years as the principle play-by-play All Black commentator for radio between 1992 and 2002. Such is the feeling of intensity that permeates in the hearts and minds of every New Zealand rugby supporter around world cup time, Moody is all too aware of how important an All Black victory in France will mean. Yet he also warns that any feeling of adulation will almost pale in comparison to the ache that will set in should the William Webb Ellis trophy elude the All Blacks for a fifth time.
“I think we’ll act like a pack of psychos,” he notes with a grin. “I mean, look at last time! The country needed general therapy! It’s rather sad that it goes to that extent in some ways, but on the other hand, it’s nice to see a country be so passionate about their sport.”
These sentiments are echoed by Victoria University lecturer Tony Schirato, whose recently finished book, Understanding Sport Culture, takes an interesting perspective of sport as a cultural field, of which numerous issues surrounding the notions of identity and national identity are also expounded upon, which are particularly relevant when considering how important world cup glory is to New Zealanders.
“The first thing to think of is a notion of a relationship between New Zealand national identity and the game of rugby,” Schirato points out.
“Clearly rugby is a very significant part of New Zealand culture. Sport in general has come to be a very privileged site in the playing out of, the identification of, and the performance of identity and national identity. Sport is something people care about, it moves them. Some people might not feel any great attachment to the idea of the nation and putting on patriotic performances in most fields of activity, but when it comes to sport, they feel perfectly free to do so. Sport, clearly, has become one of the more privileged sites for communal identity playing out.”
Indeed, New Zealanders are nothing if not emphatic in their passion for rugby, but these feelings that dip between passion and borderline psychosis are not strictly privileged to the armchair critic; they also find themselves effusing the minds of those hunkered down on the frontlines as well. The failure of the All Blacks to win the world cup in 2003 played a defining role in the removal of coach, John Mitchell, and the ushering in of his replacement, Graeme Henry. Since 2004, a myriad of strategies and tricks have been employed by Henry and his cartel of assistants into developing a platoon of battle-hardened soldiers who are both physically and mentally capable of emerging victorious in ‘must-win’ situations – an evolution Graeme Moody notes as being the realisation of some kind of master plan by Henry, albeit one that has changed, seemingly at the former headmaster’s whim.
“I think they did have a master plan, and generally that has built over the last few years. Though, I tend to think that in the glare of the pressure of this year they blinked in their selection of halfback. They spent so much time producing Jimmy Cowen and Piri Weepu as test-hardened alternatives and then strangely have bypassed both of them in rather hopeful selection of two young halfbacks who have only played about 40 minutes of test rugby between them,” he observes, in reference to the contentious selections of Andrew Ellis and Brendon Leonard. “I’ve seen this master plan evolving, with a desire for depth and experience, with guys who at a click of a finger can go in and handle the pressure, and suddenly they’ve thrown those two players aside.”
This isn’t unprecedented in All Black history, particularly around world cup time. Many will recall the rather peculiar decision at the 2003 tournament to replace an injured Tana Umaga with Leon McDonald, a man who while certainly being a gifted athlete and a superb fullback “I still remember Robbie Deans on the day of that selection in Melbourne, explaining that McDonald brought everything to centre that Umaga did anyway, and being staggered by that,” says Moody. “Sometimes you wonder why, that these men, who have shown incredible knowledge and ability, have these little areas of blinkeredness. Sometimes their views of players are very coloured by individual performances here and there.”
But even the Mona Lisa has a few blemishes here and there, and one cannot deny the litany of successes that this latest All Black incarnation has brought, certainly not Graeme Moody.
“The coaching set up’s great, the forwards’ power and balance is probably as good as we’ve had,” he assesses, “But I still think this is the second or third best backline we’ve sent to a world cup. So, what it’s going to come down to using the forwards and forgetting the need to entertain and display examples of ‘self expression’, because they’ve got to go there and do a job first. It’s going to be a very different approach from what we’ve seen in the past four years where we’ve glorified beautiful attacking plays and tries. I think it’s going to take a more patterned and direct effort. Whether this team’s capable of that, we’ll find out in two months’ time.”
It is a rather cautious approach from Moody, but it is peppered with cheerful tips of his hat in the direction of reality. “Generally speaking, I have seen their plan, and when you look at their results, how can you criticise them?” he smiles.
So, so far, so good. The All Blacks have enjoyed a bountiful bevy of Tri Nations, Bledisloe Cup victories over the past four years, not to mention a couple of equally impressive successes over the touring Lions side in 2005, and the impressive Grand Slam over the home nations a few months later; they’ve produced a winning formula that is predicated on those stalwarts of New Zealand rugby – forward dominance and scintillating back play; and they’ve arrived in France injury free and focused. Logic would dictate that an All Black victory in France is all but inevitable, but there is no room for logic at the table of sport.
The game of rugby is always in a state of flux, such is the nature of the professional age. However, in recent times, the commercial imperatives in rugby, some might say, have wrought their own problems and have begun to tear the New Zealand game asunder. This year alone, New Zealand rugby has been forced to endure the ignominy of hosting a third-rate French national side, whose premium players were shackled back in Europe with club commitments, while a host of fringe and first-class players have bid New Zealand rugby bon voyage in favour of more lucrative contracts up north.
“It’s a problem,” says Schirato. “As sport continues to go down the road of becoming a media commodity, then there’s really no turning back. The point about this is once you’ve produced rugby as being predominantly a business, then the imperatives associated with that dominates. What you’ll see is more and more players taking the money, and the hold that the national team has over players will be mediated by the affect to which that will commoditise them; if you play for the All Blacks, that makes you a more marketable commodity.”
Graeme Moody laments that we’ll probably see less and less rugby in New Zealand. “We’ve got the most marketable product: the All Blacks. We just haven’t got the stadiums. When you can take the All Blacks and have them play England at Twickenham in front of 80,000 who are paying £200 or $450 a head, or have 60,000 here paying $200 a head, with everybody whinging about that as well, there’s no question about where you want to be, as long as you can get a share of the gate.”
But fear not, loyal rugby heads, for it is this mystique of the All Blacks brand that both Moody and Schirato see as a plentiful source of pollen for the bees of world rugby. “You take away the All Blacks and rugby becomes a much, much less attractive proposition,” says Schirato. “At the upcoming world cup, the focal point is who can beat the All Blacks, and that’s the way you market the world cup. Whether it’s French passion or the skill of the Irish, it’s all directed at ‘can they beat the All Blacks?’ The way the sporting culture is set up in New Zealand, this is going to be maintained and perpetuated.”
“So much New Zealand rugby’s popularity and fame depends so much on All Black performance,” Moody notes. “As long as the All Blacks are performing on the world stage, you’ll always have that. I’m a bit of a traditionalist. It still means more to me to see a good provincial game than a good game of Super 14 rugby. New Zealand rugby is so good is because of that honesty and down-to-earth nitty gritty that you see in provincial sport. Whether it will survive in a professional age will depend on the continuing success of the All Blacks, because everybody loves winners.”
But what of these chequebook-waving, pound and euro-toting bucks from up north? Will they be a governing force in rugby’s metamorphosis into a predominantly club-based entity? Moody tends to disagree.
“I don’t think these European clubs are trying to wreck world rugby. If I was to guess, I would expect great support from these clubs for the rugby world cup because it gives the game a profile and it gives their players a worldwide profile, and it will draw more people through the turnstiles at club level. So it is in their interest too not to hammer test rugby completely out of the scene, particularly the world cup. It just doesn’t seem rational to limit their game – their product – when it has so much marketability. The IRB, however, do have to realise that they are no longer the masters; they’re the players, and they need to start looking at the bigger picture.”
“You’ve got to put the club games in perspective – it’s not a marketable commodity on its own terms,” Schirato believes. “It needs the money, the exposure, the branding that comes from the international game, so they cannot kill international rugby. In fact, they have to make it bigger and better and more spectacular and more attractive. There is too much invested in the brand of the national game for it to be diminished too much.”
So, we here in little old New Zealand – the well-to-do hardnosed grassroots supporters of all things rugby – can breathe a small sigh of relief. The game we have so ardently identified as our own, the one to which casts such a shadow over us that it has the power to alter our moods like tides – will not be rendered irrelevant by a group of suits from Europe. New Zealand rugby need not look forlornly in the direction of some ‘last chance saloon’, so long as those 15 men in Adidas black manage to keep one, two or maybe even three steps ahead of the rest, a feat they are not only physically capable of, but mentally and strategically capable of as well. It’s certainly something a little golden trophy sitting in Paris would go a long way to cementing; now all that remains is the simple task of getting it, something that might be four years too late to do come 2011.