Rugby World Cup: All Blacks genie is out of the bottle again

PLANS AND PLAYMAKERS: Mehrtens has banished the demons of Ellis Park and is ready to grant his team their three wishes
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The Independent Online
WHEN ANDREW MEHRTENS arrived on rugby's international stage in 1995 it was as though New Zealand had discovered the genie in the bottle. The slim stand-off half was a marvel at the World Cup that year - until, in a puff of smoke and a slewed dropped goal attempt, the dream went awry. It seemed the All Blacks had used up their three wishes.

After the stunning play which had taken New Zealand to the final, losing a kickfest against South Africa in extra-time was surreal. Tell us it ain't so, the country groaned as it struggled to cope with the defeat.

The experience could have shattered Mehrtens, too, but he is far more resilient than his frame suggests. He and all his team-mates have confronted their demons. Ellis Park 1995 is history; there is nothing they can do about it and as the 1999 World Cup has approached they have shown they can march forward.

Mehrtens has an abundance of talent and mental strength to do just that. The 26-year-old has been interviewed countless times about 1995 - and he accepts there will be more of the same over the next six weeks. It is a discussion point, nothing more now. He is at peace with the issue.

Composure is a key ingredient for any back-line director. Rattle him, unnerve him and any voracious open-side flanker will make his life miserable. Mehrtens has that composure, though you would never call him calm or placid. Beneath those choirboy looks beats a calculating and expressive brain.

Sometimes you get the impression Mehrtens has to keep himself in check; he has to scale down his plans, he needs to deal with the moment rather than projecting himself four moves ahead. But his mix of skill and ideas make him an outstanding playmaker. He can set his backs away, kick goals with the accuracy which has put him past 500 Test points with only Grant Fox ahead of him for the All Blacks, or run with the stunning speed and guile which gave him an outstanding solo try against the Wallabies this year.

His influence on the All Black back line is as critical as Josh Kronfeld's contribution to the pack. That was shown after the Super 12 final when Mehrtens helped the Canterbury Crusaders to defend their title. Amidst the celebrations, the All Blacks selectors emerged from the Crusaders' dressing-room with mass frowns. Mehrtens had a groin strain, an injury which might need surgery.

While the rehabilitation was usually favourable there were always concerns. The national cricket captain, Stephen Fleming, and the All Black lock, Royce Willis, had taken far longer than expected to recover from similar problems. And the World Cup was only a few months away.

After several examinations the verdict was to rest for some time. Mehrtens missed the All Blacks' opening few matches but was back and in smart form for the final five internationals. The hope is the repair work and form holds.

"The injury is probably something which is always going to flare up but we have consulted the right people and they say it is not going to get any worse," Mehrtens said. "I have to be careful, but it is the sort of kickers' thing where if you develop it once you can develop it again. It is just about getting treatment before it gets too bad."

When Mehrtens left for the World Cup in South Africa four years ago he was a one-Test wonder. He has now played 34 Tests and has an ease and security about his status in the side. "Back in 1995 I was very wide-eyed - there was a huge buzz about everything," he said. "It has been a long time between World Cups."

That gap has increased Mehrtens' confidence and brought him a variety of experiences. He has been injured, he has been dropped and suffered the public wrath of the All Blacks coach, John Hart, he has been censured for a digital salute to a Pretoria crowd this season, he has criticised referees and South African crowds.

His penchant for practical jokes can get him in strife. For example there was the radio item on April Fools' Day which suggested he was off on a million-dollar deal to play rugby for Natal. His mother was one of many taken in by the ruse. Mehrtens usually has a quickdraw quip.

He is a restless soul who is happier on the move rather than watching videos or slumbering like his team-mates. He feels ready for the action of the fourth World Cup.

"Last time we went as fifth favourites," he said. "There was no attention on us at all until the semi-finals and we could go about our business in peace until then. It is really nice of Air New Zealand to be doing the planes [pictures of the All Blacks front row adorned the fuselage of the All Blacks plane to Britain] but obviously, despite last season, there is a lot more attention on the team because of our record since 1995. We are not able to go in low profile and that's the way it is."

Winning this tournament, Mehrtens believes, will be all about the usual formula - taking your chances and minimising your mistakes. "We showed in Sydney [where Australia won 28-7] we can't afford to be too confident, but we know we can play a lot better than that," he said. "We can play really well. We know we have worked hard and want the results from that. We are confident - we know we have everyone behind us and that helps the confidence."

After a World Cup opener against Tonga, the decisive pool game for the All Blacks will be against England. It is a match which could go a long way towards deciding the tournament outcome.

"If we want to be the big boys we have got to play like the big boys and that is right from the start," Mehrtens said. "Obviously the England game is going to be a very good gauge of that, which is why it is so important to go well in that game and take some confidence out of it."

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