No end to All Black mourning

Letter From Auckland
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Sporting uniforms have changed in New Zealand to those of yachting and cricket as the country plays host to the America's Cup challengers and the West Indian team.

Sporting uniforms have changed in New Zealand to those of yachting and cricket as the country plays host to the America's Cup challengers and the West Indian team.

Golfers like the resurgent Michael Campbell, Michael Long, Greg Turner and Stephen Scahill are striving to push their chosen sport to equal prominence. And there has been a vibrant world under-17 football championship as well.

But even with the change in seasons and the arrival of other sporting codes, rugby still dominates sporting discussions. Nothing has diminished the angst which followed the All Blacks' staggering World Cup semi-final defeat against France. The magnitude of that failure was reflected in the screeds of newspaper columns, letters to the editor, television coverage and saturation coverage on the nation's only radio sports talk-back show.

Earthquakes, fire and pestilence could have been battering the rest of the globe, but for most Kiwis the world had come to an end at Twickenham in late October. Either they wanted to know why, or knew the answers. Whatever category, they wanted an outlet to talk about the All Blacks' biggest failure in four World Cups.

The switchboard on the sports talk-back station could not cope. It prompted one of the hosts to plead with his listeners for some respite. He was not, the host lamented, trained to be a grief counsellor.

A month on and the misery levels have subsided though the anguish still remains. While the squelch of winter has been replaced by the warmth of summer and its sporting companions, that All Black collapse is still a fresh and open wound on the country's sporting psyche.

There is no escape. Every day or so there is some new rugby information which revives outbursts about the capitulation against France. Initially, the discussion was about a successor for the fallen coach, John Hart, and about the conflicting values of grassroots and corporate rugby administration, plus the make-up of the panel vetting the coaching candidates.

Last week, it was about the announcement of the five Super 12 squads for next season, with most attention on the inability of the former Test No 8 Isitola Maka to gain selection in any of the franchises. Many felt Maka or another No 8 with similar power should have been in the World Cup squad and that Hart erred badly by opting for the more mobile Taine Randell on the back of the scrum. The debate festered again when Maka's Super 12 omission became public.

When Hart declared in Cardiff, after the All Blacks' third-place play-off defeat against the Springboks, that he would not contest the national coaching job again, there was some relief. He accepted responsibility for the team's fall and it would be tough to find many in New Zealand willing to fight that viewpoint.

It is a familiar sporting scenario. Win and the players take most of the plaudits, lose and the coach regularly wears the blame. Had Hart and the All Blacks won the World Cup, many of the concerns felt about his regime would have been overlooked.

But the gravity of the Twickenham collapse and the subsequent loss to the Boks opened up Hart and his team for the full-blown public inspection. All the issues were raked over, from the first signs in 1997 that Hart was too much of a control freak with his players to the lack of leadership, selection frailties and closed-shop mentality Hart encouraged at the World Cup.

The corporate team packaging espoused by Hart, backed by the New Zealand Rugby Union and underwritten by the sporting manufacturer adidas, was criticised heavily. Greats like Colin Meads and Buck Shelford called for the All Blacks and the board to reconnect with the heartland of New Zealand rugby. The new chief executive, David Rutherford, made similar noises as the NZRFU met for the first time since the World Cup. Any small summer respite rugby yearned for had evaporated. The soul-searching was massive, far more widespread than the 1991 and 1995 losses.

The election of a new government last weekend was overshadowed by the upcoming vote for the All Black coach. There is often more political intrigue about rugby choices than there is at the national ballot box. How will the interview panel consider the candidates, what instructions has the NZRFU delivered about Hart's successor and the way rugby must travel in the new millennium?

The coaching possibles list is headed by Hart's offsiders, Wayne Smith, who took the Canterbury Crusaders to the last two Super 12 titles, and Peter Sloane, or the Otago Highlanders supremo, Tony Gilbert. If there is an impasse at the vote, an outsider like Shelford, Ross Cooper or John Boe could sneak through.

But the arguments seem clear now, though they will become murkier in the next fortnight's run to the selection. There are two lines of thought. The first maintains the new coach must have no links to the All Black regime of the last four years, and that would mean success for Gilbert. The pro-Smith and Sloane faction would argue against guilt by association.

Most rugby followers thought this year would be fascinating. It has been but in a perverse and unwanted way many did not consider. The World Cup catastrophe has been the catalyst for the greatest upheaval in New Zealand rugby since the Springbok tour of 1981, an introspection which shows little sign of slowing.