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What's the biggest challenge in world rugby?

Roar Guru
28th October, 2010
71
2876 Reads

Is there anything more angry and sullen than an angry and sullen New Zealander? I don’t do our Kiwi friends justice, I know, but they can be a dour lot at times. The angry, white south island farmer type comes to mind; chewing over his miserly thoughts as the sleet sets in on his South Pacific isolation.

Such thoughts breed wonderful playmakers and accountants, for every great fly-half in the economy of his play is an accountant; the invested capital of the forwards to be weighed against the speculative expenditure of his outside backs.

In a rundown of his statistics at the end of the game, the numbers of passes, kicks and runs, are revealed the accumulation of little efficiencies, the realisation of little advantages that ultimately demonstrate his ability to sway the result. 

Every great team has their great accountant and no world cup has been won without one. Even the great misers of their position, the kickers who rarely let their centres see the ball, have their place. 

In a bull market let the bulls run and indeed Argentina did much with this formula in the last world cup. Swamping forwards and rule interpretations that favoured tacklers meant that Juan Martin Hernandez was as much the man for 2007 as Bernie Madoff.

Now there was a year that produced a glut angry and sullen Kiwis. And rightfully so given Wayne Barnes’s outright refusal to blow a whistle in the general direction of a Frenchman in that famous quarter final.

Now I would like to attribute this next thought to a Kiwi acquaintance for it sounds like something one of them would say.  However it is a thought that has occurred to me completely independently although I wouldn’t be surprised if I am not the first to think it.

The biggest challenge in international rugby is beating the All Blacks at the World Cup.

Now, being a ‘Kiwi type thought’ it may prove as error strewn as that good nation’s 2003 World Cup hosting bid but I am, for the sake of improved Australo-Kiwio relations, going to try to support it.

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Firstly, let’s look at the other big challenges of international rugby. 

I don’t know what the recent history of the Lions does to my argument. That the combined weight of four nations hasn’t won a series since 1997 suggests just how hard it would be for a single home nation to beat any SANZAR team.

Against this one must weigh the absolute majesty of the Lion’s last three opponents. Australia in 2001, New Zealand in 2005 and South Africa in 2009 were all teams at the top of their games, almost anomalies in themselves.

Winning the Tri-Nations is pretty damned hard too and it has taken some very special teams from Australia and South Africa to wrest the title away from the shaky isles.

Against this stands the obvious fact that this competition requires upward of three victories against two of the top three nations in the world. In my support it could be argued that winning a series often relies upon the luck of results beyond your control as the two other nations play each other.

The Six Nations is a wonderful competition that I have very quickly developed a great affection for. Having led with an honest compliment let me now finish with an honest truth and say that a top four Super Rugby team could reasonably hope to finish in the top half of that competition’s table. 

Hell, the Crusaders would have won a handful of them by now.

Of the trophies contested between only two countries the Calcutta Cup stands out as a perennial David and Goliath brawl that, like Australian rugby league’s State of Origin series, really only comes to life when its scripted underdog (Queensland) wins.

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But even this competition only pits Scotland against the relatively underperforming might of England. In the last ten contests Scotland have taken three wins and a draw against England however a World Cup win against New Zealand be the Scots first victory against the All Blacks. 

Ever.

Lets now consider the occasions when New Zealand have lost in a World Cup. There are of course only five such occurrences and only three opponents who have inflicted these calamities.

In 1991 it was Australia, on the back of one of the most sublimely ridiculous passes ever to be thrown by the ridiculously sublime David Campese, who took the All Blacks out in a classic semi final. Those wallabies included a band of all-time great players like Campese, John Eales, Tim Horan, Michael Lynagh and Nick Farr-Jones.

The Australians broke the back of the world cup that game and were only left to strangle what life was left in it in a final that saw neither side rise to the same heights.

South Africa did the job in 1995. 

Having trudged through a semi final against the French that they could and probably should have lost, the final was undoubtedly their biggest challenge.

The victory required a period of extra time, the wonderful boot of Joel Stransky and the perfect coupling of dogged Afrikaner defence and the inspirational leadership gifted that country at that time.

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In 1999 the defeat of New Zealand as a spectacle was perfected. Had it been a Pakistani cricket game we would be reminiscing through knowing looks, such was the turn around that occurred during the game and when Jonah Lomu ran unopposed through seven Frenchmen to score in the first half, the outcome seemed set.  

But then something happened.

Christophe Lamaison played one of the most superb games of rugby ever produced in a World Cup to guide his team to an unlikely and spectacular victory. I would argue that not until Dan Carter’s performance in the second test of the 2005 Lions series had a fly half played such a perfect game.

Unfortunately the victory left France spent and Australia easily accounted for them in the final with big Owen Finegan picking up where Jonah had left off, bundling les bleus out of his way with disdain.

2003 gave Australia the win they would regret for another generation, for with their unexpected defeat of New Zealand was ensured the continued career of head coach Eddie Jones. 

Think about that. 

Beating New Zealand was such an achievement that it covered up the cavernous incompetence of Eddie Jones. It took war in the middle east to get George W Bush re-elected but one Stirling Mortlock intercept and Jones was back in the saddle.

As alluded to earlier, the French victory in 2007 will forever be tainted by the rather nervous performance of referee Barnes but it must be said that the French did exactly what they had to do. No sane man pays more tax than he should and no sane Frenchman strays offside less than the referee lets him.

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Had New Zealand won that game there can be little doubt that they would have walked into the semi finals as the tournament favourites. 

As it happened a French team again left their best game against the Kiwis and somehow managed to lose to an English side that had only their defiance to cover their otherwise inferior abilities.

Each of those games were classics. 

In every game the victor rose above themselves in a way that is seldom seen in international rugby. Only in 1991 and 1995 did those victors then go on to win the final and only once, in 1991, has a team beaten New Zealand and then had to back that win up a week later.

Perhaps these games, with the notable exclusion of 1999, weren’t the most entertaining but then running rugby is not a regular visitor to world cup fields. The best team in the world will not always win the world cup, but beating the best team in the world in a world cup is a hell of an accomplishment.

Is there a bigger challenge in international rugby?