Rugby Union: All Blacks battle their dark age

Rugby Union: New Zealand bottom of southern hemisphere heap as Tri-Nations reaches climax in Johannesburg today
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The Independent Online
By Chris Hewett

NOT EVEN the trendiest New Zealander would put his country at the cutting edge of popular culture; when the All Blacks decided to funkify their pre-Test ritual by adding a blast of rock to the familiar combination of national anthem and haka, they embarrassingly opted for a 30-year-old Rolling Stones standby first recorded when Colin Meads was still playing in the second row. But then, the Blacks are getting everything wrong these days. Four straight defeats, their bleakest sequence of results in 50 years, suggest they might have done better to forget the music and pick Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts at half-back instead.

This summer's Tri-Nations series reaches its climax in Johannesburg today and for the first time in the competition's brief history, New Zealand are an irrelevance. When the tournament began six short weeks ago, they had not dropped a home match to South Africa in 17 years and not lost anywhere to Australia, their most regular opponents, since 1994. Suddenly, they are bottom of the southern hemisphere heap and you can hear the sound of sides splitting from Stellenbosch to Sydney.

History tells us that New Zealand's sojourn amongst the deadbeats will be a strictly temporary affair and the only pertinent question is whether John Hart, their phenomenally gifted coach, can restore his charges to the straight and narrow in time for next year's World Cup. There are very few flies on Hart, a 20-20 visionary with an IQ to match, and for all his public insistence to the contrary, it began to dawn on him some time ago that his All Black machine was working on a faulty cycle.

Rugby's world order is governed, reasonably enough, by World Cup performances and ever since the All Blacks won the inaugural tournament in 1987, they have peaked at all the wrong moments. A wonderful side under Wayne Shelford in 1989, they were anything but wonderful under Gary Whetton when it really mattered two years later. They were brilliant, spectacularly so, in the 1995 competition, but trophies tend to be won by the ruthless and that ruthlessness would not emerge for another 12 months.

And now they are in the same boat once again, riding the downside of the wave when they should still be cruising towards the crest. They have lost four of the greatest players ever to lace up a boot in anger - Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce and the incomparable Sean Fitzpatrick - and if, on the face of it, they have been unlucky in shedding a quartet good enough to have held down a place in any side in any era, it is now clear that Hart gambled on their longevity and lost.

Brooke informed the All Black hierarchy a year ago that he would leave New Zealand after last autumn's tour of Britain and finish his playing days in London. Hart accepted his decision with extreme reluctance, figuring that the other three would keep body and soul together long enough to make 1999 a swansong to remember. Then came the hammer blows: Fitzpatrick's retirement through injury, Bunce's unexpected and inflammatory big-money move to French club rugby with Castres and Jones' wretched loss of form.

That deluge of misfortune and miscalculation has left Hart precisely one year to bring a brand new side to such a pitch of competitive expertise that they can not only live with, but prevail over, the pace of the Wallabies, the sublime attacking genius of the French and the relentless physicality of the South Africans. It is a mighty big call, made a whole lot bigger by the fact that the new boys show little or no sign of stacking up.

Hart has already seen his first batch of potential replacements - Norm Hewitt, Todd Blackadder and Junior Tonu'u - fade to grey in the heat of battle. And the next generation? Anton Oliver has all of Fitzpatrick's edge but little of his class, Isitola Maka is formidable but lacking in subtlety and Carlos Spencer goes from God to God-awful in the space of a minute. Only Carl Hoeft, the young Otago loose head, possesses the unmistakeable stamp of a world- beater and props rarely win Test matches on their own.

If the national side fail in Wales in 12 months' time, the New Zealand public will use Hart's guts to tie up their rugby socks. Everything, but everything, has been sacrificed in pursuit of the world champion label; the All Blacks are no longer a team but a "brand", a cash rich product to be marketed and feted on the grandest of scales. What is more, all the available talent is being concentrated in the five Super 12 provinces from which the Test squad is drawn.

Given that once proud rural unions like Southland and Taranaki have been marginalised and emasculated and that the National Provincial Championship, once the strongest of all domestic competitions, has been downgraded to allow the top performers a breather, the stakes are now very high indeed. In the act of putting every last egg in the All Black basket, the great and good of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union have already broken sufficient numbers to cause one hell of a stink in the event of a third successive World Cup misfire.

Earlier this week, a certain Zinzan Brooke said he might consider an international comeback, only to be slapped down by the voice of officialdom. "We're another year down the track since he retired," said Rob Fisher, the chairman of the beleaguered NZRFU. Thousands of uneasy New Zealand rugby folk might have added: "Yes. And another year down the slippery slope to nowhere."

FROM ALL-POWERFUL TO ALSO-RANS IN THE LAST 10 GAMES

15 November, 1997, Dublin

Ireland 15 New Zealand 63

Deprived of Sean Fitzpatrick's leadership for the first time since 1995, the All Blacks concede early tries before pulling away.

22 November, 1997, Old Trafford

England 8 New Zealand 25

Fitzpatrick's absence in evidence again as the All Blacks fail to capitalise on a brilliant opening quarter. England far from outclassed.

29 November, 1997, Wembley

Wales 7 New Zealand 42

Jonah Lomu shows flashes of his old self as a poor Welsh side crumple beneath the twin towers. All Blacks win comfortably without being tested.

6 December, 199, Twickenham

England 26 New Zealand 26

Tourists commit more unforced errors in 30 minutes than in previous four years combined, conceding 18 early points to a disbelieving England.

20 June, 1998, Dunedin

New Zealand 64 England 22

Nip and tuck until Danny Grewcock, the English lock, is sent off. The visitors' third-string outfit grab three late tries to finish the stronger.

27 June, 1998, Auckland

New Zealand 40 England 10

Obvious All Black deterioration as under-strength England hit the hour just 14-10 adrift. New boys fail to click.

11 July, 1998, Perth

Australia 24 New Zealand 16

Matthew Burke's virtuosity gives the Wallabies a first victory in four years over their Tasman rivals. The ageing All Black pack fails to dominate.

25 July, 1998, Wellington

New Zealand 3 South Africa 13

A classic in which the New Zealand old guard make stand against the ravages of time. Pride and courage not quite enough, however.

1 August, 1998, Christchurch

New Zealand 23 Australia 27

The nadir. Australia run away with the match while the All Blacks can only distort the scoreline with two late tries. A thorough hiding.

15 August, 1998, Durban

South Africa 24 New Zealand 23

John Hart rings the changes and a youthful All Black outfit open up a 23-5 lead. Ironically, they are now without the experience to make it count.

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