Mention New Zealand to someone, anyone and the first thing that comes to their mind is rugby. And why not? Demographically dwarfed and physically isolated, this Polynesian island nation rarely shows up on the international radar bar the odd natural disaster. Its rugby status though bucks that trend. Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport. It is embedded in their cosmopolitan culture, a part of their national psyche. The sight of their national team the All Blacks performing the intimidating haka dance goes a long way in stirring national pride. That a Kiwi of European descent can perform a traditional Polynesian war dance in an international setting is testimony to the galvanizing effect of the game on the people. Rugby to the Kiwi’s is what football is to Brazilians, or cricket to Indians.
Despite being the most talented and feared team in rugby for the best part of two decades, it is another quality associated with the All Blacks that has come to define them. An unenviable quality that defines the chasm between expectation and reality; chokes. And boy do they choke! The biggest chokes in rugby. Perhaps in sports in general. Bad refereeing, over coaching that stifles creativity, lack of a plan B, the whole range of reasons and excuses have been forwarded in the inevitable post-mortems that follow a typically limp underwhelming performance at the rugby world cup. Not since the inaugural tournament has New Zealand ascended to the zenith of world rugby. Even then, the world cup was not the epitome of rugby competition it now is.
The repeated failure has seen apprehensive expectation accompany the build up to every tournament since they failed to defend their trophy back in 1991. Not this time though. This time, there is genuine belief that they are gonna get the monkey off their backs. ‘Our turf, out time’ goes the famous tagline to the event that the Kiwis will host for the first time since the inaugural event. The optimism this time seems rooted in solid firmament.
The omens are there to suggest a good tournament is in store for the hosts of the seventh rugby world cup. The one and only world cup title they won was the one they hosted in 1987. The All blacks have a 90% win rate at home in rugby tours. This is an incredible standard in any professional sport, a daunting challenge to any opposition facing a team that is seemingly unbeatable in their backyard. Looking at their form this year, there is a noticeable deviation from the normal trend in a world cup year. New Zealand has won the Tri Nations in every world cup year since it was inaugurated in 1996. Their usual impressive form against the South Africans and Australians, in the tournament played a few weeks before the start of the world cup has maybe added to the complacency that comes with their ‘favorites’ tag. For once though, they lost out on the tournament in a world cup year this time round. Slightly far-fetched and a tad superstitious it may seem but this may be an indicator of the change in fortunes. If not for anything else, it may serve as a wake-up call that will refocus the squad. On the sentimental side of things, a world cup win in this rugby mad nation may just be what the country needs following the devastation that was brought about by the Christchurch earthquake earlier this year. Like the Japanese women winning the football world cup this year, a tragedy brings together a nation and instills an urgency to win that may not necessarily be present in the other teams.
The task of moulding a team sans the omnipresent psychological burden of failure falls on the shoulders of Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach. The squad which will be captained by 30-year-old All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is made up of 16 forwards and 14 backs, and with 1,133 Test caps between them, is the most experienced All Blacks squad ever assembled. Five of the team’s leading players, McCaw, first five-eighth Daniel Carter, hooker Keven Mealamu, fullback Mils Muliaina and lock Ali Williams, will be taking part in their third consecutive Rugby World Cup tournament. There is a good balance in the selected squad with a blend of experienced All Blacks and young players who bring youthful enthusiasm to the side. The squad balance is also evident in the selection of players who are specialists in their position while others have utility value and can cover a number of positions. Having picked players on current form, the biggest casualties who will miss out on the once in a lifetime experience of a home tournament are Hosea Gear, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Liam Messam, Wyatt Crockett and Jarrad Hoeata.
The All Blacks are in Pool A at the Rugby World Cup and will kick off their campaign against fellow pacific islanders Tonga on Friday September 9th at Auckland’s Eden Park (11:30AM Kenyan time). Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu start as centres with Israel Dagg in the full-back role. Prop Tony Woodcock packs down alongside the hooker Andrew Hore and the tighthead prop Owen Franks with flanker and captain Richie McCaw winning his 99th cap. Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu and Mills Muliaina are the notable omissions from the starting 15. Their other Pool matches are against Japan (Friday 16 September, Hamilton), France (24 September, Auckland), and Canada (Sunday 2 October, Wellington).
Looking at their opponents, Australia are the most exciting side around, with two inspirational play-makers in Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau, and runners all over the place. With a win in the tri nations under their belts, they go into the tournament with confidence and avoiding the spotlight that accompanies their bitter rivals New Zealand. Their form is also peaking at the perfect time and will be serious contenders.
Fellow southern hemisphere giants South Africa are seen as rank outsiders despite being the holders of the Web Ellis trophy and will look to prove the doubters wrong. Key players have returned from injury and the selected squad boasts a lot of experience with an average of 40 caps per player.
Enough with the threats, win the damn thing already!
The biggest opponent and obstacle to a Kiwi win though will be themselves as noted by legendary winger Jonah Lomu. Their psychological state will be as important as their physical, having formidable mental hurdles to overcome. The national symbol of New Zealand is the Kiwi, a flightless bird endemic to the island and in many ways, this bird is symbolic of their rugby team’s inability to soar to the lofty heights of world rugby. Backed by a ferverent home crowd and an impeccable home record with a strong top ranked squad, the big question then is will the Kiwi finally fly? Anything bar a world cup win and the Kiwis can edit their haka to finish with a choking gesture in place of their throat slitting one.