As a New Zealander recently brought low I almost feel I should be writing this in a smaller font size. In fact if you’re not a New Zealander, stop reading… this is private.
Virtually catatonic, much reduced and clearly in denial on Sunday morning, I found my way as quickly as possible to the shoreline where I duly bathed myself in fish blood. Normally I wash my hands in the salty water between guttings and rebaitings, but on Sunday I didn’t, I coated my rod, reel, clothes and skin dark red.
The All Blacks had just lost 18-20 to the French in Cardiff, blowing a 13-0 lead. Luke McAlister had been put through a yawning gap after a superb delayed pass by Dan Carter, and with the timely support of Jerry Collins had scored a sensational try, but after half-time the youngster was sitting on the sideline taking a ten minute spell while the game changed.
The French exploited their numerical advantage and flanker Thierry Dusatoir levelled the scores. Rodney So’oialo drove over to regain the lead but McAlister’s almost first act upon returning was to miss the conversion. Carter and Collins by this stage had limped off along with Byron Kelleher, Anton Oliver and Keith Robinson.
While New Zealand’s power diminished, the French Bench had them going from strength to strength. First came Sebastian Chabal then Frederic Michalak. With every All Black that limped off and fire-breathing Gaul that ran on, the pendulum kept swinging France’s way. Michalak’s first touch was to collect a forward pass from Damian Traille, gallop through the blindside hole where Collins would have been and give Yannick Jauzion a clear path to the line, setting off wild scenes of celebration and the horns of about five million Peugeots, Renaults and Citroens all over France.
It had actually happened, I wasn’t dreaming it. Every frame of the eighty minutes was burned indelibly into my memory, and while harvesting fish I relived each increasingly horrible moment from haka to post-match press conference with a giddy sort of clarity. Only now had it all become clear, the nightmare, the random fears I had been trying for years to enunciate, the nightmare of us never winning a World Cup again (and the All Blacks remaining in our own apathetic, arrogant, bum-scratching antipodean minds the greatest sports team of all time, but a team because its fans are so arrogant that is still never given the proper respect… while our haka keeps demanding it, a reminder to our opponents’ supporters of all their tragic, smug Kiwi workmates in the days leading up to test matches…)
We’re going to do it again and again, and it’s going to be embarrassing. New Zealanders will talk about being shanghai’ed until we’re blue in the face, about being made to play two weeks running in away strips that more closely resembled the opposition than the black jerseys would have, how it was a giant northern hemisphere ambush, how it was ludicrous that four European referees could be appointed to control four quarterfinals… some will even be arrogant enough to suggest Wayne Barnes could not strictly be considered neutral once England had knocked out Australia… like he would automatically choose the hosts over the favourites.
And yes, Barnes was atrocious. He will not be handed control of any more fixtures in this tournament. His litany of errors and poor judgement have earned him a special place in the long list of referees that cost us test matches, another pint in the footbath of blame for New Zealanders to dip their accusing feet in.
But bad refereeing only matters in tight games. Officials feel the same pressure the players do, at the same times, and (arrogance alert) if we had played as well as we know we can we wouldn’t have been worrying about his bad calls. Time and again during that second half we placed ourselves in his hands, after forty whole minutes demonstrating he was clearly out of his depth.
What went wrong? What took us to that point where we had our heads so far up our own primary canals we actually chose the wrong haka?
On the face of it, Graham Henry took what he and most of us believed was the best prepared All Blacks team of all time to France. They were rested, relaxed, raring to go, couldn’t wait for the business end of the tournament to start. They’d fashioned a ninety percent win-loss record over four seasons, and the bookmakers had them at the sort of vicious odds that even Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter would have balked at.
Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad nickname for this team, in the spirit of the 1905 Originals and the 1924-25 Invincibles… the 2007 Unbackables.
Anyway, step right up through the looking glass.
We played our best fullback at centre again. We took a mid-tournament holiday AGAIN. Smithy’s rotating backline had absolutely no cohesion when it counted. Totally key members of the conditioned twenty-two fell apart in a quarterfinal, after being in the easiest pool.
There was more to this than the referee.
I love these guys. I believed them about rotation and conditioning when they laid it all out and explained it in language I could understand. It all made such perfect sense, really quite seductive sense, and the victory-upon-victory monotony of the march hypnotised me.
But this was the World Cup, a tournament. They actually told us that too, but we wrote it off as some kind of modesty… respect for the opposition and all that, when it was so much more. Robbie Deans put it well in The Herald when he said you simply cannot prepare for everything such a touranment might throw at you. The giant psychological hijack didn’t need to be as thorough as it was, even, just the bad referee would probably have been enough. David Kirk’s piece in The Telegraph was equally arresting, about the difference between gods and men and the fitness of mortals for Herculean tasks.
Henry’s only mistake, probably, was falling in love with his team. He began his tenure as the most ruthless of selectors, but when it came time to make the hardest calls he couldn’t remember his own criteria. He picked Dan Carter with a bad leg and Keith Robinson lacking match fitness. Doug Howlett was in roaring form, form good enough to axe Rico Gear on the strength of, but Henry’s preference on the wing was suddenly for the two non-specialist greyhound cousins. Mils Muliaina was put in at centre again after only irregular outings in that position (including Rustenburg, where admittedly he was brilliant but in an All Black loss nonetheless).
People will see these things differently, but I’m going to call it as I see it.
Leon MacDonald could hardly kick past the halfway line from inside his twenty-two. Muliaina couldn’t distribute because the ball never got to him without a Frenchman two feet behind it.
Don’t even get me started on McAlister. In the middle of the most important game of his life and having had a blinder in the first half, he suddenly became the biggest kid in the sandpit again.
Pop kicks over the top of a French backline, with time ticking away and New Zealand behind on the scoreboard? Dropkicks from halfway when the All Blacks had been laying siege to the French goal-line only minutes before? Colliding with an attacker when defending his own tryline? Missing a conversion that would have forced extra time?
I’m glad that’s the last time we’ll see him in a grey jersey.
Byron Kelleher, running back and looking up over his shoulder, not once but twice collided with MacDonald who was coming forward to meet a high ball. Every crucial ruck from which ball needed to be moved quickly, Kelleher seemed to be buried at the bottom of.
As I say, people will see this differently… some will say Kelleher’s passing was crisp and his darts always made it over the gain line, but it was uncanny how he was never there to clear whenever we finally had their defences stretched. Byron’s a nice guy, but not smart enough to shoulder such responsibilities.
Our forwards were terrific, the unbelievable second half penalty count against them notwithstanding. Ali Williams and Jerry Collins in particular were magnificent… Williams with no less than three steals at lineout time, Collins with his link work and the massive physical toll he took on the French.
For their part the French were tremendous. They took every inch that Barnes gave them and just kept coming. Their momentum increased inexorably in a long sequence of hugely crucial, game-turning moments… Lionel Beauxis getting them on the board just before the break, McAlister’s clumsy yellow card, Sebastian Chabal coming on, the All Blacks’ backline general Carter going off, the previously indestructible Collins going off, Frederic Michalak coming on… oh God, Michalak…
Thinking of Michalak’s smile while throwing yet another kahawai’s innards to the seagulls, I laughed. There was no echo because only the wet horizon was in front of me. It was a spooky sound, representing arcane thoughts maybe only the fish constantly suiciding on my hook understood.
There on the shore, red to the elbows and looking like an extra from Evil Dead, I realised I was comfortable with the concept of forever. Obviously delirium had something to do with it, but the laughter had come spontaneously. It broke the spell.
Much as we dreaded this, in a way by doing so we got ourselves used to the idea. We were embarrassed in 1999, had the other cheek slapped in 2003, and from now on all slaps will just be mint on the lamb of embarrassment, the shock of the old as Will Self once said.
It wasn’t even the All Blacks’ fault. As our representatives we should accept the responsibility for them. They went in with an eighty percent winning record and leave the tournament still widely regarded as the world’s most feared rugby opponents. We can’t even say they didn’t deserve a little gold cup.
It’s we who did not deserve this. We do it to them. Our reliance on them for a vicarious sense of worth is too big a burden. We placed them on this pedestal (for pretty sound reasons considering they were winning every trophy in sight), and by sheer weight of steadily coagulating national pressure we almost forced Henry to love his boys. But now they’ve failed it is our duty to catch our countrymen as they fall from the lofty heights we placed them at. They need our love more than ever. The vast majority of them played terrific rugby, and the ones that didn’t were only just underpowered for such mental contests.
The only cure, as I said in my final paragraph last week, will come from cultivating the correct attitude to winning and losing. Even if we think we’ve finally learned this lesson we will probably still do it to them again in 2011.
The primary concern for this country now should be not royally screwing up the 2011 tournament itself… not terminally shaming this nation with some low rent, totally preventable, vulgar little glitch that will have us sniggered at for decades.
The kneejerk is coming, I can feel a giant cruciate ligament flexing. Some will say it’s time for Warren Gatland to become coach, some will plump for Deans. Some will cry for a return to the days of rugby as a fifteen-man game of attrition. Some will say the All Blacks should go back to being a squad of twenty-two and playing every game until injured.
Some will say it’s time for Dan Carter to let his body hair grow back.
I say we should suck in our collective gut and take a good long look at ourselves. Twenty-two men losing a game of rugby is far less significant than four million people gnashing their teeth over it like it’s freaking Darfur.
And you All Blacks, you can lose a game of rugby on my behalf anytime, even (gulp) if it’s every four years like a metronome. If you didn’t lose occasionally we wouldn’t bother watching. Just keep playing the way you do, like you love it too much, like speed freaks… canyon jumpers, going a hundred miles an hour and overshooting the ramp when ninety would have carried the day.
I’ll be right there with you, laughing, and the canyon at least will echo.
Until next week,
Inky remains at your service.
p.s. with the World Cup 2011 in mind, check out http://www.newzealand.com/frontrowrugbyclub/