Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bring back Laurie. South Africa 31 All Blacks 19

The end of the world is upon us. The All Blacks lose two in a row against the Springboks! A depression has moved onto the country and is unlikely to clear anytime soon.

One of the things that defines us as a country and a people is our love for rugby. It would be fair to argue that rugby is not quite the dominant force that it once was. However there is no doubt that the game still has a huge following with many of us supporting both the national team and our provincial favourites (unfortunately Waikato also lost last night!). Rugby continues to dominate the headlines, our biggest stars are household names across the rugby world, and often move there as well.

Players grace the front of the woman's magazines spilling their guts on their love lives and are pilloried in the news media when things get a bit out of hand after a night out with the boys or they get a speeding ticket. Rugby has an impact on New Zealand like the Tour de France in France, cricket in India, American Football in the US and of course soccer in Europe. Performances at every level are dissected endlessly and if our top teams lose it is almost like the end of the world.

The game was long strictly amateur and the All Blacks were the dominant team of this era. Well most of time. It wasn't until 1956 that the AB's finally won a test series against the old foe, the Springboks on home soil. It would take the fall of apartheid in South Africa and neutral referees before we achieved that goal in South Africa.

The All Blacks were the dominant team of the amateur era because they played and trained like professionals and because they played with a dogged determination and discipline that other teams seemed to lack. For a small unimportant country at the end of the world, outnumbered 30 to one by sheep this was one thing that we could do better than almost anybody else. Even if most of the world didn't know much about this obscure game invented by a bloke called William Ellis who picked up a soccer ball and ran with it at an English public school sometime in the 1860s.

The All Blacks epitomised all that we consider ourselves to be. Tough, uncompromising, innovative. World Champions. Well we used to be. They aren't and we aren't any longer. New Zealand continues as a production line of top rugby pedigree but we haven't won the most important trophy in the game since the inaugural Rugby World cup in 1987. The only time we came close was 1995 in South Africa where we narrowly lost a final with a team that had come down with a dose of food poisoning (or were poisoned).

Many people blame the game becoming fully professional after 1995 for our inability to capture the glory of 1987 and perhaps even 1995. As the years have gone by the aura of the All Blacks has dimmed and the fat wallets of the the Northern hemisphere and Japan have siphoned of some of our best playing and coaching talent. Despite this the All Blacks are still the most successful international rugby team but their inability to win the vital games is giving them a well earned reputation as chokers.

The coach of the 1995 team was a pretty tough task master. Several years ago he came out of retirement to coach a provincial team and the players more or less mutinied over his methods. Looking back this really epitomises what is wrong with Rugby at the highest level and to a large extent this is a reflection on our society. The players thought they knew better but clearly they didn't.

We reward mediocrity in all walks of life either by ignoring it because it reflects badly on ourselves or because we don't want to make a scene. We collectively don't respect authority and have no sense of commitment or discipline and we certainly don't take responsibility for our mistakes. It is all somebody else's fault and we let people get away with it. I also blame the namby pamby cardigan wearers that have influenced generations of people in this country to believe that competition (like trying to win something) and personal discipline are bad things and they don't need to do what they are told by someone in authority if they don't feel like it.

After the last World Cup debacle. You know the story. Rested players when they should have been playing. Started favourites. Lost in the quarter final. Blame the referee for missing a forward pass. Real reason out passioned by the French and once the coaches ran out of ideas the players didn't know what to do. To make matters worse when we had the opportunity to get rid of the coaching panel after the World Cup and appoint someone else the panel was retained. The men that should have been appointed take up overseas contracts and are lost to the local game until at least after the next world cup.

What is wrong with our game at the top level is a lack of leadership, the leadership of the team at the coaching level, their tactics and planning and that of the NZRFU for appointing them and reinforcing their collective failures. Some of the players on the field might be a bit past their use by date last night but barring those that are injured the All Blacks fielded close to their top players -they just didn't seem to know what to do.

Round one of the NPC has shown once again that whatever the loses of talent overseas there is still plenty in the tank. We have the talent to win the next World Cup - the players just need some leadership. Bring back Laurie I say.

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