Lomu waits for no one except the coach

David Daniels, in Durban, has seen the future of rugby - and it's all black
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The Independent Online
Jonah Lomu's intimidating presence on the New Zealand bench in Durban today, for the first in a three-Test series, may only be temporary, but the most unexpected sight in rugby is undeniable testimony to the All Black dominance of the world game. No other side would even contemplate leaving out a player of Lomu's frightening power. New Zealand, though, are in a league of their own.

Quite simply, Sean Fitzpatrick's 1996 side are the best international rugby side by a distance, and - whisper it extremely quietly, particularly in Twickenham's hallowed corridors - they are going to get even better. The northern hemisphere game is already struggling to keep pace with their southern counterparts. But it is not just the politically racked Five Nations who are losing the fight. Australia and South Africa had manfully attempted to compete with New Zealand in the inaugural Tri-Nations tournament over the past six weeks.

That they both failed in every department of the flowing, surging play that seems so alien to European sides is further proof of what everybody really knew a little over a year ago. Then, just days after blowing apart Jack Rowell's tactically naive England in the World Cup semi-final, the All Blacks somehow contrived to lose the final to South Africa.

The New Zealand coach at the time, Laurie Mains, carried the can for misjudging a plan that should have taken apart a workmanlike Springbok team. His successor, John Hart, is not so prone to benevolent behaviour. Hart had an indirect role to play in New Zealand's success in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987: as coach of the provincial giants of the time, Auckland, he shaped players the calibre of Joe Stanley, Grant Fox and John Kirwan. Brian Lochore, the then All Black coach, acknowledged Hart's part in the World Cup build-up by appointing him assistant coach.

Leading up to the 1991 World Cup, Hart was brought in as a late coaching aide to Alex Wyllie in the hope of stopping the All Blacks' spiral downwards. The coaches and the players failed, being shown the exit in the semi-final.

After three unsuccessful applications, Hart was finally given the All Black coaching job, on his own, late last year, and his 1996 model looks headed for fame to match their new-found professional fortune. That they have three survivors from the '87 side, Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke - all Aucklanders - is proof of the continuity that has run through the New Zealand game.

Fitzpatrick admitted: "I always believed I would never play in a better team than 1987, but now I'm not so sure. This team has so many things going for it that I would have to rate them a shade better. Now we have so many talented players in so many different positions with the ability to adapt to every situation. We didn't have that in '87.

"Our backs, in particular, have the pace and flair to cut through any defence, and that gives us the edge. We won two close games in recent weeks, coming from behind to beat Australia and then, last week, to storm through to a last-quarter victory over South Africa. That says volumes for our ability to stay cool under pressure and get the job done even when the clock is running down. I'd like to think we will get even better."

Hart is just as complimentary. "I guess until this side wins the World Cup people everywhere will always give the '87 side the nod. I suppose that's fair enough. In the modern-day game, results seem to be all-important. Personally, I'm not convinced they are the be-all and end-all.

"I think it's more important the way you win. The manner of your approach says everything about your philosophy in the game. We try to play to our strength, which means letting the ball get out wide when the opportunity arises. That's probably why we've managed to win a couple of tight games that lesser sides would probably have lost.

"I agree with Sean that this side can get better. A lot of our players, like Andrew Mehrtens, Christian Cullen and Josh Kronfeld, are still young guys. We have other good young players coming through so the future is very bright." Then, of course, there is always Lomu. As the rest of world rugby already realises, the giant wing will not be sitting it out for very long.

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