Power of the Mains attraction

A year in the life of the All Blacks: Owen Slot hears how a team rallied round to re-establish their awesome reputation
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The Independent Online
AT 10am last Saturday, the morning before kick-off at Parc des Princes, the All Blacks gathered for their last team meeting with their coach Laurie Mains (above left). Mains, who was retiring after four years, is not outwardly emotional, but here he put on a show. He presented the team's shirts, one by one, and with each shirt made a short speech about the player who was to wear it; about his career and how he had changed as a man in their years together. The team, said Sean Fitzpatrick, their captain (right), could not possibly lose after a such a display, and indeed they reacted with a performance to match. It sealed a season of high adventure; according to Mains, the style "delivered a message that rugby can be a game with which no other sport can compare". Here, Mains and Fitzpatrick plot the path their team followed in discovering a brand of rugby that failed the final test at the World Cup but still won the applause . . .

Planning for South Africa

Laurie Mains: "I had been preparing for this season for three years. The players didn't know too much about the broader idea - it wouldn't have been right to tell them - but I had identified, with the advent of Osborne, Lomu and Wilson, that we had the speed I wanted to inject into the game. During 1994, we had made a conscious decision not to show how we would play in the World Cup, we had suppressed our game. There had been glimmers in the past - against Australia in 1992, against Scotland in 1993 - where many of our World Cup tactics were practised."

Sean Fitzpatrick: "At the end of last year, we started a series of training camps and it was amazing how the new style developed. Laurie worked on ways to keep the ball off the ground, of getting it wide quickly and the game grew."

Mains: "We concentrated on the forwards' philosophy, knowing when to clear the ball out and when to drive. We had two full packs and it took days of hammering away until they learnt to feel it. It's not even a case of having one glance across the pitch; it's feeling it. Stand-off was a grave concern. What we had after Grant Fox - Stephen Bachop - wasn't what was needed. The stand-off had to run and worry defences. Marc Ellis progressed but was injured for all of 1994, so we watched Andrew Mehrtens. He came in for the second camp and there I saw his tremendous ability and temperament - it was the last piece of the jigsaw."

Fitzpatrick: "Jonah, at this stage, was not even close to the Test team. I remember watching him in Christchurch, doing fitness tests. He was five yards off the pace. It was embarrassing; I couldn't believe he could be an All Black."

Mains: "In April we played Canada, our only pre-World Cup game and our only Test. We demolished them, 73 points to bugger all. It was an outstanding display of rugby. I knew then we had it."

The World Cup

Fitzpatrick: "Back in 1987 and 1991, we always used to say that the fear of losing would make us win. But at our first team meeting in Johannesburg, what we said was, 'Forget the fear of losing. Get excited about trying something different'. The new guys seemed thrilled. Before, they would pull on an All Black jersey and go into a shell."

Mains: "Jonah was now firmly established in the side but we didn't change our tactics around him, he was so good at playing them anyway. He was so strong our loose forwards could feed off him better than the other wings - Josh Kronfeld used to follow him around like a heat-seeking missile, always knowing there would be a reward at the end of it."

Fitzpatrick: "We did talk about ways to get Josh to Jonah quickly - we had to sacrifice Josh for the tight stuff. Against Ireland and Wales, though, there were areas of our game that weren't right. We let a lot of ball get turned over."

Mains: "We clearly improved as the tournament went on. We always had lapses, naturally, when games were sewn up - Scotland and Wales were classics and that concerned me, especially as the players said they played at such high speed that they couldn't sustain it for a whole game. The first 60 minutes against England, however, was as good rugby as I've ever seen; it was extremely skilled, organised and purposeful."

Fitzpatrick: "And sadly, the World Cup final was our worst performance. The Springbok defence worked superbly. They'd worked our pattern out pretty well - maybe we should have changed our style. We were bitterly disappointed, but I don't think the guys realised what we had achieved until we got back to New Zealand. The support there was unbelievable; I've never been in an All Black team that's been feted for coming second. It showed the guys that though we'd fallen at the last, our rugby had been appreciated."

The final farewell

Mains: "It would have been great for world rugby to have seen the final played the way we played the other games. So we were determined to put that right when we had the two Bledisloe Cup Tests against Australia a month later."

Fitzpatrick: "Australia played the first Test well: they ran round the rucks and Josh was nullified there. Josh isn't a Michael Jones-type flanker who can tackle man and ball and knock them over, he is an ankles tackler and that allowed Willie Ofahengaue and others to offload the ball. So for the next Test, Jones came in and that element of the Australian game was nullified."

Mains: "At half-time in that second Test, I knew we were set to cut them to ribbons. You could see it would happen, and it did. We played fabulously. However, there is one weakness to our game and that was exposed in defeat in Toulouse two weeks ago. We never got our game going, largely because of the turbulent wind which prevented us from running the ball as normal. So we are, to a point, in the hands of the elements."

Fitzpatrick: "In Toulouse, because we were going to deck, the French loose forwards would fan out in the back line and we'd have nowhere to go. So for the second Test in Paris we had to work out where those forwards were not going to be."

Mains: "You could not ask for more from a match than what you got in that second Test. It was a triumph for the way we play. We were running the ball almost carelessly from well inside our own half which is barely heard of in Test rugby. For my last game as coach, it was important that they played like that. The sheer delight of the players in finding out that they could play like this has brought me immense satisfaction. I just wish I could do another year or two as coach. I'm worn out and I have no wish to carry on, but if this had been year two, wow, would that be exciting."