The All Blacks are the most dominant rugby team in the history of the game and are favourites to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup – just as they’ve been favourites to win every World Cup since the competition was first held in New Zealand in 1987. The ‘favourite’ tag at this year’s tournament is well deserved.
The reigning world champions have been beaten just twice since they held aloft the William Webb Ellis Trophy on a still and breathless Auckland night in 2011, in front of a home crowd that would have burned down Eden Park had their beloved team failed to win. It was only the second time the All Blacks had been crowned world champions and it brought to an end 24 years of heartache for long-suffering New Zealand fans. Time and time again the All Blacks have gone to the World Cup as favourites only to come home with their tails between their legs.
They were favourites in 1995, when they were beaten in extra time in the final by Joel Stransky’s epic drop goal that sent South Africa into raptures. They looked unbeatable in 1999, until they were overrun by a French team that played the second half under some sort of Gallic spell.
They were favourites again in 2003, but an intercept try by Wallaby centre Stirling Mortlock put paid to their chances. As the final minutes of the game ticked by, Australian half-back George Gregan reminded the All Blacks of their consistent failure to perform on the World Cup stage. “Four more years, boys,” he teased. “Four more years.”
Gregan was wrong; it took eight years for the All Blacks to end their World Cup curse. France bundled them out in the quarter-finals in 2007, but the men in black finally found redemption in 2011.
With the title comes the dubious honour of going into the tournament as defending champions. Dubious, because no team has ever defended the World Cup. Not Australia, not South Africa, not England and not the All Blacks. The last time the All Blacks were defending champions going into a World Cup was 1991. Their title defence faltered at the semi-final stage against eventual champions Australia. This year, the All Blacks want to be the first to end the hoodoo. But what lessons can they learn?
“It was a debacle, really,” says John Hart, of the 1991 campaign. Hart is as forthright today as he was as a coach. He doesn’t bother to glaze the doughnut of his World Cup history. Before the 1991 tournament, he was controversially appointed All Blacks co-coach with Alex Wyllie. It turned out to be a terrible idea, not because Wyllie and Hart were bad coaches. In fact they were two of the best, and had both been selectors in 1987 when the All Blacks won the title. But they were different men: Hart, the Auckland industrial relations executive, and Wyllie, the North Canterbury farmer. These men weren’t just from different provinces, they were from different planets.
Sir John Kirwan was one of the breakthrough stars of the 1987 Rugby World Cup. In the opening match he had run through, around, and over, most of the Italian team to score what stands to this day as one of the great individual tries in international rugby. He well remembers how the awkward marriage of two polar opposite personalities impacted on the team.
“We felt the tension indirectly,” he says. “It wasn’t a happy team in many ways. A number of players had hung on for that tournament, and that, coupled with the controversy of the coaching appointments, didn’t create the harmony required for that kind of environment.” The failed co-coaching experiment was never repeated. There was another lesson learned. A team needs to build toward and through the World Cup, rather than peak before it.
The All Blacks’ record between the World Cup triumph in 1987 and the 1991 World Cup mirrors that of the current side. From 1988 until the opening match at Twickenham in 1991, the All Blacks played 58 matches, won 53, drew once, and lost four. The current All Blacks side has played 45 matches since their 2011 Rugby World Cup victory for 41 wins, two draws and just two defeats. The All Blacks were marked men in 1991, and they’re marked men in 2015. Some things never change.
Yet, so much has changed in the landscape of world rugby in the intervening years, in particular, the increased importance of the World Cup. “The 1987 World Cup may have launched the event from a New Zealand point of view, but it’s no secret that the northern hemisphere teams didn’t truly buy into the concept,” says Hart. “It hadn’t developed that much further by 1991.”
With the tournament still finding its relevance, the All Blacks arrived in England with a more traditional, singular focus: to beat the home side at Twickenham in their opening game. What seemed to be missing was a distinct, holistic, strategic plan for the tournament in its entirety. Craig Innes, who made his debut with the All Blacks in 1989, was one of a handful of World Cup debutantes in the team (11 of the starting 15 in the opening game against England were in the 1987 All Blacks World Cup squad). Looking back, he thinks there was too much focus on the first match.
“We had talked a little about the World Cup, but whether there was anything approaching the planning and preparation of today is doubtful,” he says. “That first game at Twickenham consumed us – we just wanted to get off to a flyer and we didn’t think too far ahead.” John Kirwan makes a similar point. “We put so much effort into that first game that we were guilty of saying to ourselves, ‘Alright, that’s the big one out of the way, now let’s move on.’”
After an 18-12 win over England in the opening game, the team’s performances fell away. There were unimpressive wins against the USA, Italy and Canada, but the All Blacks seemed to be stuck in low gear. The poor performances did nothing to ease the tension between the senior players and the newer squad members. It also impacted on the team’s external image. Despite not playing anywhere near their best, there was a swagger about the side that did nothing to endear them to the European media or public.
“We didn’t help ourselves off the field,” says Innes. “It’s fair to say we created some problems for ourselves. The UK was a new experience for us and we didn’t know what to expect.” “With the World Cup in the UK there’s enormous pressure from a media point of view,” says Hart, “especially with the formidable English tabloid element.”
The All Blacks had no plan to deal with that pressure, and by the time they reached Dublin for the semi-final, Australia, who had knocked Ireland out of the tournament the week before, had embarked upon a charm offensive that saw the local fans swing in behind them. The All Blacks were blindsided by the depth of the Dublin crowd’s antipathy towards them and were outplayed on the day, much to the crowd’s delight.
For Sir John Kirwan, that day was more than defeat. It was a starting point on his journey to cope with and support others with mental illness. “It’s the first time I remember bursting into tears after a loss,” he says. “I wasn’t well, mentally, and I felt devastated, mixed with anxiety and uncertainty. It was a perfect storm.”
A ‘perfect storm’ could be the best way to describe the 1991 campaign. Another factor that contributed to the downfall was over-reliance on experience. “Experience wins World Cups, but we pushed the loyalty card too far,” says Hart. Even though young players had been brought in, they were not empowered. That mentality, mercifully, has gone.
“When you’re in the All Blacks now, whether you’re on debut or have played 100 test matches, you feel like you can contribute,” says Cory Jane. “You wouldn’t be in the team if you weren’t good enough, so everyone’s input is valued.”
After 1991, coaches realised that each World Cup performance has to build on the previous one. You can’t win going backwards. Cory Jane, current All Blacks winger says that progression was the focus in 2011 and will be the focus in 2015.
“You have to discount the opposition and keep building on your own game plan,” he says. “You can’t set a benchmark in the first match and then rest on your laurels. Constant improvement, week on week is what we strived for in 2011 and it will be no different in 2015.”
And so the challenge remains for the 2015 All Blacks side to become the first team in history to claim back-to-back Rugby World Cups. They have an empowered team, one that is at pains to play down its number one ranking, has agonised over World Cup planning for the last four years and always seeks to improve with each performance. In so many ways, they are more equipped to deal with the pressure than any All Blacks side before them.
Can they do it? Of course, but maybe they’ll be thinking about one final ingredient that every World Cup-winning team knows is required – luck. “A World Cup tests the mental and physical strength of the entire squad,” says Innes. “And then there’s that one thing in rugby you can never rely on – the bounce of the ball.”