Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

Pressure on All Blacks after 20-year World Cup wait

Pressure on All Blacks after 20-year World Cup wait

No team at the Rugby World Cup will face more pressure than New Zealand, striving to win the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time in 20 years.
Not even England, the defending champion, bear the weight of expectation carried by the All Blacks who have started all five previous World Cups as tournament favorites but won the trophy only once, at home in 1987.
The All Blacks' favoritism this year is perhaps greater than at any previous tournament, firmly based on the world-beating form they have maintained since they suffered a semifinal defeat at Australia's hands in the 2003 Cup in Australia.
A 2005 series victory over the British and Irish Lions, a Grand Slam of test wins over the Home Unions later the same year, a crushing defeat of France in Paris in 2006, Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup victories have combined to establish New Zealand as the team to beat in 2007.
Yet the All Blacks cannot escape their own dismal World Cup record and the stigma that has grown from their failures to win rugby's world championship, despite their favoritism, in 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2003.
For all their achievements in intervening years, the World Cup _ its format of round-robin and sudden death, its crystallization of a season of test matches into a few weeks _ has always been New Zealand's stumbling block.
Selection errors in 1991, an outbreak of food poisoning before the 1995 final, internal conflict in 1999, overconfidence in 2003 have combined to deprive New Zealand of the most desired mark of its ability.
Interim success means little and the All Blacks realize they cannot be judged the world's best side unless they have the Webb Ellis Trophy. That, and the awareness of past failures, creates a huge weight of pressure which the All Blacks will have to bear increasingly as the tournament in France unfolds.
The All Blacks have been unsuccessful in limiting public expectation in New Zealand, where fans have bitterly felt the 20-year Cup drought, but they believe they have inured themselves to that expectation.
"There is an appetite in this country for the All Blacks to win the World Cup, and I can understand that appetite," coach Graham Henry said.
"We are a very focused rugby nation and the success of the rugby team is important to the psyche of the nation. We understand that, we agree with that and we live by that."
Henry took charge of the All Blacks when John Mitchell was sacked after the 2003 World Cup failure. His focus in the past four years has been to build a team capable of redressing that failure and the All Blacks' form during his tenure has marked the success of that process.
However, there has been concern in New Zealand that over the past season the All Blacks' Cup preparation has gone awry.
Henry named a list of 22 "protected" All Blacks at the start of the season and barred those players from taking part in the first seven rounds of the Super 14. Those players showed the effects of their lack of match play during the test window and, further limited by rotational selection, haven't regained the form of the previous three years.
Henry has been relaxed about the All Blacks' poor form and remains confident their preparation will ensure they peak in France.
There are still problems which the All Blacks can't minimize, however. They haven't had a settled midfield since the retirement of Tana Umaga and the current preferred combination of Luke McAlister and Isaia Toeava is not of world class.
Injuries to locks and a lack of depth at prop have also left New Zealand thin in crucial areas: they have only three specialist locks in their 30-man Cup squad and a gulf between their first and second-string front row.
The All Blacks have an immense pool of talent but many of its key players, flyhalf Dan Carter, or wingers Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, have to show they can rise to this supreme test.
Richie McCaw's captaincy is another issue. The controversial flanker, who will likely suffer heavily at the hands of referees throughout the tournament, is often too busy in his openside role to provide anything more than leadership by example. He is not an inspirational or even a strategic leader, as were Sean Fitzpatrick or David Kirk.
The World Cup has therefore become a time of personal judgement for McCaw.
"It's definitely going to (define me), it's going to define this team," he said.
"A lot of the guys have played a lot of rugby over the last four years and we've been pretty successful over the four years. But what happens in the next six weeks will be how you remember what this team is about."


Updated : 2021-07-24 15:59 GMT+08:00