Top team on the planet but Kiwis proved undercooked and hesitant

Henry's masterplan fails to end 20 years of World Cup misery, writes Hugh Godwin
Click to follow
The Independent Online

New Zealand put everything possible into winning this World Cup. We know this because their coach, Graham Henry, told us so in the wake of his team's quarter-final defeat by France on Saturday night. The 61-year-old then left the stage, and possibly rugby for good, to the victors, France. "We still respect this New Zealand team, they are great players," said Raphael Ibanez, the captain. "But at this point in a World Cup courage and team spirit count, and I feel this is what made the difference."

The 30,000 or so New Zealanders here and millions more rugby-obsessives at home dealing with the renewed pain of defeat should not dismiss the Ibanez comment as the hot-blooded babble of a proud Basque-Frenchman. All logic said New Zealand, the inaugural world champions in 1987, would do it again this year after dominating the four-year cycle since England's win in 2003. However, logic does not score tries, make tackles or take crucial decisions when the opposition are in your faces.

Those who feared a long-running New Zealand hegemony over rugby – beginning with their 3-0 series win over the British & Irish Lions in 2005 and stretching on through and beyond the World Cup they will host in four years' time – are in clover today.

Strangely, though, it could be an inferiority complex which is doing the All Blacks down. They cling to the mythical powers of the haka, but the inspirational power of the black jersey is wearing thin. The big money leagues of Britain, Ireland and France are where it's at, and top players far from over the hill such as Luke McAlister, Aaron Mauger, Chris Jack, Carl Hayman and Doug Howlett are on their way over here as fast as their newly bulging bank accounts can carry them. "It's very intense being an All Black," Mauger said a few weeks ago in Marseilles. Well, boo hoo.

But what of Henry's best-laid masterplan? The year started with the top Test players being withdrawn from the opening rounds of the Super 14, a competition which, though less overblown than the English or French leagues, does not ingrain the same winning mentality. The players were given a conditioning programme instead.

The summer Tests looked sensible, with looseners against Canada and a French third-string, followed by the annual Tri-Nations competition which New Zealand won for the fourth year running. During that series, though, there was a loss to Australia in Melbourne which rang an alarm bell. Henry could never admit it, but his pack needed toughening up. They tried it by training savagely against each other last week, but they had no control over their easy World Cup draw. They romped through Pool C mostly untested with four wins and 309 points against Italy, Portugal, Scotland's second team and Romania.

Henry's relationship with his assistants, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, appeared harmonious enough; ideal, even, compared with, say, Wales's inexperienced group.

A freelance writer called Margot Butcher has had unique access to the All Blacks to write a diary of their tournament, and perhaps it will reveal a different tale. Hansen in particular is an ambitious man. On Saturday night he commandeered the media conference to say the players were hurting "10,000 times more" than any fan. Henry had been 10,000 times more measured in his words.

I put it to Hansen in Lyons after the second pool win over Portugal that, instead of rotating the squad, they should put out their top team in the remaining two matches or risk reaching Cardiff underdone. "Do you know what our top team is?" he railed. "We've got 30 players who have all been part of big wins for the last two years."

Top team or not, the chosen 22 could not put the French away, despite leading 13-0. By Henry and Hansen's dictum, the injuries in-play to fly-halves Dan Carter and Nick Evans should have made no difference. Richie McCaw, wonderful flanker though he is, went missing as captain in the mind-racing minutes of the second half.

So New Zealand must kick their adidas-sponsored heels until their next go at winning that damned gold pot, on their own lush soil, in 2011. If they lose that one too they might as well take up tiddlywinks.