The Rugby World Cup: How All Blacks saw the light

The Team: New Zealand; Chris Rea admires the Kiwis' openness but still fears their forwards
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS IT was the sombre uniform which identified New Zealanders and their rugby as dour, rugged and predictable. Perhaps it was their tendency to win which blinkered them and others to the need to strike the right balance between winning and enjoyment, as important in the professional era as it was in the days of amateurism. If there was joy in the hearts of the men who represented the All Blacks in the post-war years and up until the late Seventies, it was seldom expressed in their play.

Even when they had their opponents by the throat there was a marked reluctance to engage in the adventurous or the fanciful. Grim of countenance and determinedly in-flexible, the All Blacks' machine ground the hapless opposition to dust. There were glorious exceptions, of course, from Billy Wallace in the early part of the century to the explosive genius of Bryan Williams 70 years later.

It is, admittedly, the natural reaction to find fault with success. No touring team in history have gone to a country, whipped the opposition and been roundly praised as jolly good fellows. The most popular sides with the hosts are always those with the worst playing records.

From the start, rugby in New Zealand has been more of a religion than a recreation, and a particularly aesthetic form of religion at that. It is when religion turns into fanaticism that the trouble starts. Intolerance to any opposing view, which in the sporting context means defeat, can bring out the worst in people, and there was a time in the early part of the Seventies when New Zealand rugby appeared to have gone off the straight and narrow.

It followed a fabulously successful decade in which the sides of Wilson Whineray and Brian Lochore bestrode the rugby world like the giants they were. Defeat in the series in South Africa in 1970, followed a year later by the unthinkable and, to most New Zealanders, unbearable defeat by the British Lions on home soil, brought them to crisis.

The imperial guard of Lochore, Meads, Tremain, Nathan and Gray had gone, replaced by the greenest of green recruits. Surly, insubordinate troops they were too. And seldom has there been a more un- popular bunch of tourists than those who came to this country under Ian Kirkpatrick's captaincy in 1972.

New Zealand had lost the plot, and without South Africa, who had by this time been banished from the international circuit, rugby was fast losing ground in the increasingly crowded marketplace of world sport. But the strength of the game in New Zealand lies in the deep knowledge and understanding of those involved in it, and also in honest-to-goodness pragmatism. The game's administrators rightly divined that the root of the problem lay in the style of rugby being played, from the Test arena right down to the playground. It lacked entertainment value, enjoyment and above all appeal to the younger generations, who understood that winning was important but considered the manner of victory to be of greater value.

By the end of the decade, in which there had been further humiliation inflicted, this time by the Wallabies, the All Blacks were back in shape, although it was a shape radically changed in style and velocity. Under Graham Mourie's captaincy the heroes were not the mighty granite slabs in the forwards but the subtle artists such as Stuart Wilson, Bill Osbourne, Bruce Robertson and Steve Pokere in the backs. Since then the balance has remained a sensible one, and for every John Kirwan, feinting and fending on the wing, there has been a Michael Jones, a superlative flanker.

There has even been room above that rarefied level to accommodate the freakish, a category into which Jonah Lomu surely fits. I was reporting on the World Cup match in 1995 when the All Blacks played Ireland, the occasion of Lomu's first introduction to the world stage. In training he had looked superhuman, but in this game he surpassed even that description and treated Ireland's respected defence with utter disdain.

At the press conference after the match, Colin Meads was asked whether he had ever seen anything like Lomu. "Yeah," he replied wearily and, after a pause, "but never on the fucking wing!" It is perhaps a measure of the strength of the current squad that Lomu is by no means certain to win his place in the starting line-up, although it is inconceivable that he won't be brought in at some stage as part of the softening-up process.

It was he who injected some purpose into the All Blacks' play, albeit in vain, in the latter stages of their recent Bledisloe Cup defeat, and the very sight of him will surely send shivers down the spines of Englishmen if he appears at Twickenham. The damage he inflicted on England four years ago is seared on the minds of all who watched it.

We are going to hear and see much of the back three, the two wings and the full-back in this tournament. They have a vital role to play, not only in defence, where their mutual understanding will be of as much value as their courage under the most witheringly accurate fire, but also their ability to counter-attack. With the possible exception of the Australians, no other side have greater quality in depth in this area. Jeff Wilson, wherever he plays, is a world-class performer, Tana Umaga fits the bill in every respect and Christian Cullen, although his form has dipped and there remains uncertainty as to which position he should play, is one of the world's most dangerous runners from broken play. Lomu, by tying up at least three defenders, one for each leg and a third somewhere, anywhere, above the waist, creates vital space for his colleagues.

The big question, and the gloom and doom have been drifting up from down under for some time now, is whether the forwards are up to it. There are doubts that the back row, Josh Kronfeld apart, have either the physical presence or the footballing skill to compare with Australia and England. The front five, so we are told, are no more than capable journeymen, although from where I sit their front row look terrifying and there are few locks in the world with the street-wisdom of Robin Brooke.

We have heard all this before. The fact is that over the years New Zealand have proudly led the world in the development of the game and in their levels of skill, craft and courage. Whether or not they win the 1999 World Cup they are certain, by their presence, to enhance it.

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