The All Blacks do not tend to do frippery or tomfoolery but at the team's hotel this week Israel Dagg, the nation's new sensation, was drawing guffaws from the press.
Dagg, a 23-year-old from Hawke's Bay, has elbowed veteran full-back Mils Muliaina out of the side. Just as unexpectedly, he came over comically cryptic to explain his celebrations of the second of his two tries against the French last Saturday.
If you didn't see it, Dagg skipped through from a stand-off's position – more on the stand-off, Dan Carter, in a moment – whereupon he held his right arm upright and celebrated with a peck-peck motion of his hand. Imagine Dagg as Rod Hull and his right arm as Emu... perhaps it was something to do with the French cockerel. Carter's and Dagg's hands were things of beauty in creating Adam Thompson's opening try in the 37-17 win which confirmed the All Blacks' progress to the quarter-finals. The pair also combined for Dagg's first try, and Carter popped over a drop-goal, so they were entitled to be in a good mood.
So what about that celebration? "I can't really talk about it, I won't be sharing any information about it," Dagg said, suppressing a grin like a naughty schoolboy. "But I'll give you a few clues about it. The first clue is: the dog miaows. That's all I'm going to leave you with."
Carter, rated the most gifted player in the world, sat by him shaking his head ("It makes no sense to me"). When Dagg said other players might do it too, Carter was not having it. "It's not a team thing, no," he said. Dagg did concede he might "keep it indoors" for, say, the final, but he could not resist adding: "I'll give you another clue: the laughing bear drives a motorcycle. That's my last clue – for today."
If joy at defeating the French had prompted Dagg to emulate Eric Cantona's "seagulls following the trawler" riff, there was no escapism on Carter's part. The All Blacks start their knockout rounds on Sunday week in Auckland against the runners-up from England's pool. The levity was perhaps an escape valve on 24 years of Kiwi pressure.
Did Carter feel he was running hot against France? "I was pretty happy with the way I played," he said, "considering I'd had a bit of a back problem leading into that game and wasn't sure how it would go. I really enjoy those big matches and it was a game we'd really been targeting. I was happy with the way I got through it." With some prompting from a clearly besotted reporter, the Greatest Player on the Planet conceded it would be OK to use a word popular in the Kiwi vernacular: "I was very happy so, yeah, I felt I played, er, awesome," Carter said.
And never mind the laughing bear, the elephant in the room the All Blacks were not ignoring was the 2007 quarter-final against France when drop-goal attempts were missed and New Zealand crashed out. Carter popped over a drop last Saturday – only his fourth in 85 Tests but his second in two months – and he said: "It wasn't planned, it was just a matter of reading the situations. I've been practising pretty hard on my drop-goals the last 12 months. Obviously, in World Cups, drops could be important in the later stages. It's something I've wanted to work on all year."
He added that the World Cup ball does not have as much "give" in it as the ball used in Super Rugby and the Tri Nations. "If you don't strike it right it doesn't fly as straight as you'd like it to at times," Carter said. Does that qualify as getting your excuses in first? Better ask Jonny...Reuse content