The All Blacks do not tend to do frippery or tomfoolery but at the team's hotel this week Israel Dagg, the nation's new sensation, was drawing guffaws from the press.
Dagg, the 23-year-old from Hawke's Bay, has elbowed the veteran full-back Mils Muliaina out of the hosts' and favourites' side. Equally unexpectedly, he came over comically cryptic to explain his celebrations of the second of his two tries against the French last Saturday.
If you didn't see it, Dagg skipped through from a stand-off's position – more on the proper stand-off, Dan Carter, in a moment – whereupon he held his right arm upright and celebrated with a peck-peck motion of his hand. Imagine Dagg as Rod Hull and his right arm as Emu... well, perhaps, it was something to do with the French cockerel. Carter's and Dagg's hands were things of beauty in creating Adam Thompson's opening try in the 37-17 win which confirmed the All Blacks' progress to the quarter-finals. The pair also combined smoothly for Dagg's first try, and Carter popped over a dropped goal. They were entitled to be in a good mood.
So what about that celebration? "I can't really talk about it, I won't be sharing any information about it," Dagg said, suppressing a grin like a naughty schoolboy. "But I'll give you a few clues about it. The first clue is: the dog miaows. That's all I'm going to leave you with." Carter, by many people's reckoning the most gifted player in the world, sat alongside, shaking his head. "He's got this private gang he's associated with," said Carter. "It makes no sense to me." When Dagg said another player might go for the same celebration, the Greatest Player on the Planet was not having it. "It's not a team thing, no," said Carter. But though Dagg conceded he might "keep it indoors" for a match as big as a World Cup final, he could not resist adding to bafflement: "I'll give you another clue: the laughing bear drives a motorcycle. That's my last clue – for today."
If defeating the French bêtes noires had prompted Dagg to emulate Eric Cantona's "seagulls following the trawler" polemic, there was no escapism on Carter's part. Assuming a win over Canada on Sunday – and New Zealand would have to field 15 emus to slip up in that task – the knockout rounds will start on 1 October in Auckland with a match against the runners-up from England's pool. The levity was perhaps an escape valve on the pressure that comes with a 24-year wait to win back the World Cup.
Did Carter feel he was running hot against France? "I was pretty happy with the way I played," he said, "considering I'd had a bit of a back problem leading into that game and wasn't sure how it would go. I really enjoy those big matches and it was a game we'd really been targeting as our toughest match in the pool. I was happy with the way I got through it." With some prompting from a clearly besotted reporter, the GPOTP conceded it would be OK to use a word popular in the Kiwi vernacular: "I was very happy so, yeah, I felt I played, er, awesome," Carter said.
And never mind the laughing bear, the elephant in the room the All Blacks were not ignoring was the 2007 quarter-final against France when dropped-goal attempts were missed and New Zealand crashed out. Carter popped over a drop last Saturday – only his fourth in 85 Tests but his second in two months – and he said: "It wasn't planned, it was just a matter of reading the situations. Our play had been quite messy, the five or 10 minutes leading into that. To still come away with three points is a reward so that was the thinking behind it. I've been practising pretty hard on my drop goals the last 12 months. Obviously, in World Cups, drops could be important in the later stages. It's something I've wanted to work on all year." He then described how the World Cup ball didn't have as much "give" in it as the ball New Zealand used in Super Rugby and the Tri Nations. "If you don't quite strike it right it doesn't fly as straight as you'd like it to at times," Carter said.
On Monday, the two men no one wants to see in the All Black No 10 jersey – because it would mean Carter was injured – had occupied the same press-conference seats. Piri Weepu, the scrum-half who could shift one place out if required, was asked a dozen questions before the reserve fly-half Colin Slade got a look-in. Slade, who went to the same school as Carter but is a million times less well known, smiled and said: "Good afternoon, everyone," and finished with a "Thanks for your time, guys". So he has been practising his quips – and his drop goals too. "It's been a great confidence booster for Dan to be able to put a few over this season," Slade said. "It's proven that drop goals can win tournaments and we've got to be prepared for that. [But] practising is one thing and doing it in a pressure situation is another."
The pay-off line from Carter a day later was necessarily serious. "I haven't really thought about the quarter-finals or who we're going to come up against," he said. "We've got a really good vibe in the camp and we're all on the same page not wanting to look too far ahead.
"The coaches are keeping us pretty grounded after our results and just really working hard on getting better each week. I felt we've done that this tournament which has been great because we realise further down the track once we get to the knock-off [sic] stages we have to be better than we are playing now."
Hits and misses: World Cup drop goals
1995 Rob Andrew (England v Australia; quarter-final, Pretoria) In the last minute from a long way out, England fly-half Andrew edged a seesaw thriller, 25-23.
1995 Joel Stransky (South Africa v New Zealand; final, Johannesburg) The All Blacks had try-scoring phenomenon Jonah Lomu but Stransky's extra-time drop won a final of no tries.
1999 Steve Larkham (Australia v South Africa; semi-final, Twickenham) The Wallaby fly-half kicked just one drop goal in his first 86 Tests – but it knocked out the Boks in extra-time.
1999 Christophe Lamaison (France v New Zealand; semi-final, Twickenham) Two drops by the French fly-half began the turnover of NZ's 24-10 lead in the World Cup's greatest comeback.
2003 Jonny Wilkinson (England v Australia; final, Sydney) Two-footed Wilkinson landed a purler off his right to floor the Wallabies in the last minute of extra time.
2007 Luke McAlister (New Zealand v France; quarter-final, Cardiff) Dan Carter had already missed a drop before limping off and his replacement Nick Evans was crocked too when McAlister's last-minute long-range effort failed – and the All Blacks went out.Reuse content