Rugby World Cup: All Blacks march to new Hart beat

THE MAIN CONTENDERS New Zealand have the focus, Wales have the form while the Scots have shrewdness and South Africans are in transition
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The Independent Online
YOU WANT proof that pressure exists? Stand in John Hart's shoes for an hour and see how you feel. Pressure is simply a by-product of expectation and it does not require a degree in astro-physics to work out that the greater the expectation, the greater the accompanying stresses and strains. Given the New Zealand rugby public's assumption of world supremacy - the former Prime Minister David Lange once said: "You cannot explain my country except in a context of being embraced by rugby" - only one outcome will satisfy the All Black masses.

It is eight long years since New Zealanders could look at themselves in the mirror and smile a world champion's smile. The All Black universe imploded on the afternoon of 27 October 1991, when David Campese tore the silver fern defences to shreds and inspired Australia to a 16-6 semi- final victory at Lansdowne Road. Hart, whose unprecedented run of success with the Auckland provincial side had secured his status as the eminence grise of the coaching fraternity, was tainted by the failure; it was not until 1995, after New Zealand had again failed to fulfil their presumed destiny, that he rose from the rubble like some bespectacled phoenix to take total responsibility for the hopes and dreams of his nation.

Since when, the All Blacks have experienced pretty much everything rugby has to offer, from the ecstasy of a first series victory in South Africa (the real Holy Grail for dyed-in-the-wool New Zealand rugby folk) to the desolation of five consecutive Test defeats in a gruesome 1998 southern hemisphere campaign. By common consent, Hart was lucky to survive last year's humiliation; had Graham Henry, his provincial successor at Eden Park, not taken the Welsh shilling, the number one job would have changed hands.

A stay of execution, then? If New Zealand fly home without the Webb Ellis Cup, the firing squad may well reassemble. But Hart has at his disposal a squad far more focused than the one with which he was lumbered in 1991. Apart from anything else, this All Black party is young and enthusiastic, free of the world-weary factionalism that set his previous vintage at each other's throats. Taine Randell, the captain, is 24, and Christian Cullen 23 as is Norm Maxwell, perhaps the most gifted All Black lock since Gary Whetton.

The danger is there for all to see, then. Yet these New Zealanders may be a year or so short of greatness. Their footballing front row is very much a new-age unit, but the Springbok scrummagers gave them all the fun and games they could handle during the recent Tri-Nations match in Dunedin. Their back-row balance is not quite there somehow; Hart seems torn between Andrew Blowers and Dylan Mika on the blind-side flank. The centre partnership of Daryl Gibson and Alama Ieremia has plenty of the juggernaut about it, but little of the Jaguar. And there is no Sean Fitzpatrick to referee the game on behalf of his countrymen. By comparison, Randell is a pussy cat.

It would take a brave man to bet against the All Blacks reaching the final, but the draw has not been kind to them. England at Twickenham? They would sooner play the Boks in downtown Johannesburg with a referee from Bloemfontein. Defeat at HQ would mean a quarter-final trip to Paris, with either the big bears of South Africa or the resurgent harem-scarem specialists of Scotland lying in wait.

Perhaps the World Cup virgins - Cullen and Umaga, Gibson and Meeuws, Maxwell and the captain - will set the tournament alight, as Lomu and Osborne and Kronfeld did four years ago. And perhaps, like them, they will fail.Tearfully, but gloriously.

NEW ZEALAND

Coach: John Hart

Captain: Taine Randell

World Cup record: 1987 - Champions; 1991 - 3rd; 1995 - Runners-up.

How they qualified: Runners-up in 1995 tournament.

Registered adult players: 33,973.

SQUAD

Jeff Wilson (Otago)

Christian Cullen (Wellington)

Glen Osborne (North Harbour)

Jonah Lomu (Waikato)

Tana Umaga (Wellington)

Pita Alatini (Otago)

Daryl Gibson (Canterbury)

Alama Ieremia (Wellington)

Carlos Spencer (Auckland)

Andrew Mehrtens (Canterbury)

Tony Brown (Otago)

Justin Marshall (Canterbury)

Byron Kelleher (Otago)

Rhys Duggan (Waikato)

Craig Dowd (Auckland)

Greg Feek (Canterbury)

Carl Hoeft (Otago)

Kees Meeuws (Otago)

Anton Oliver (Otago)

Mark Hammett (Canterbury)

Robin Brooke (Auckland)

Ian Jones (Waikato)

Norm Maxwell (Canterbury)

Royce Willis (Waikato)

Andrew Blowers (Wellington)

Josh Kronfeld (Otago)

Scott Robertson (Wellington)

Reuben Thorne (Canterbury)

Taine Randell (Otago, capt)

Dylan Mika (Waikato)

Key player

ANDREW MEHRTENS (Outside-half)

Memories of a miscued drop goal attempt in the last World Cup final have long been submerged in a sea of playmaking brilliance. Not the most consistent stand-off in the game, but probably the best and certainly the key to New Zealand's offensive strategy.

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