Immediately the thing was done and dusted, the World Cup organisers slipped into public relations overdrive by talking about the “biggest and best” tournament of them all, about “journeys undertaken” and “final destinations” reached. It was predictable stuff but, with hand on heart, I cannot say I disagree with the underlying sentiment. This has been a six-week treat for the sporting senses, with mouthwatering contributions from a broad cross section of rugby nations.
I will take away lasting memories in a couple of respects, “respect” being the operative word. Firstly, it remains the case that players understand the importance of treating referees with due deference, even when the pressure is at its most intense and the competitive temperature is off the scale. Following on from that, I take pride in the fact that those who have been in the thick of it show a similar courtesy to each other the moment the game is over.
The final was an enthralling affair, with the All Blacks threatening to run away with it and the Wallabies summoning enough spirit to pose a threat of their own. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Daniel Carter steps up – or rather, steps back – and drops a goal out of nothing from 40-plus metres.
Just after the New Zealand-South Africa semi-final, Jonny Wilkinson vividly described his own experiences of receiving the ball as a last resort and being asked to perform something approaching a rugby miracle. This was precisely the situation in which Carter found himself… and the miracle was duly performed. After which, he proceeded to snatch the ball from his captain’s hands and convert a 50-metre penalty that all but guaranteed victory. Applause all round for Carter, who really is some player – and also for Mick “The Kick” Byrne, the All Blacks’ skills coach.
Sean Fitzpatrick, a member of the New Zealand team who won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and subsequently a great captain, speaks frequently of the importance his countrymen place on being “students of the game”. This plays into one of the fundamental aspects of the All Black mentality – the desire to leave the jersey in a place better than the one in which it was found. This means understanding and appreciating the efforts of those who had worn the shirt previously and, leading on from that, doing everything in your power to maximise your game awareness and your decision-making capability. Carter is the very embodiment of this commitment.
But more than that, I stand in awe of the humility, the grace and the all-round composure of the champions – including, I may say, the heart-warming actions of Sonny Bill Williams during the after-match celebrations. I have been privileged to work alongside and spend time in the company of a number of ex-All Black players and coaches over the last seven years and I can assure you that the public face is also the genuine article. They are a compelling mixture of the fun-loving and the extraordinary.
It also strikes me, very forcibly, that the All Blacks have not lost sight of some of the sport’s amateur values. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the F-words that are crucial to winning rugby – freedom and fearlessness being two of them – but I forgot to mention “fun”. These people give me the impression that they truly love the physical ferocity and the mind-stretching demands of union at its most exalted level. And from where does this enjoyment spring? Humility is the key. I’m told they have a regular “rugby club night” during Test weeks in which they wear their original club jerseys and swap yarns over a couple of beers – a “feet on the ground” session in which real life plays its part.
It is such a simple thing, and it is simplicity that defines their game and allows them to perform with such clarity, intensity and accuracy. In a nutshell, this is what they do:
l Win the ball;
l Win the space in front of them (that is to say, go forward);
l Win the battle for continuity;
l Win the fight to set the tempo;
l Score tries.
If these are the parameters within which the players operate, it is left to them to fill in the detail – something they are equipped to do because they have the right skills, the right conditioning, the right levels of awareness and application.
And they are helped in all this by the system of central contracts in force in New Zealand. It allows players and coaches to work in comparative harmony, with the ultimate aim of performing well on the international stage. Everyone moves in the same direction: there is none of the eternal squabbling between club and country that we see in parts of Europe (not least in England) – no egos or power struggles or battles to own the dominant voice; no self-serving public pronouncements or public confrontations or recriminations, which invariably end up with players being caught in the crossfire.
It is also vital, if we are to get to the root of New Zealand’s success, to take account of the forward-looking aspect of their operation. They are already talking about renewal, about ways of freshening themselves up. There is no comfort zone, no retreat into the hackneyed idea that “if it ain’t broke, we don’t fix it”. I have had first-hand experience of their determination to keep moving away from the opposition and there were signs of this in the final. Witness their ability to play in confined space (the first try being a classic example); their restart routines, which were flawless; their speed of ball from the tackle area.
Underpinning all this is a challenging coaching environment in which the players are put under immense pressure to think and act independently, to improve their problem-solving skills, to make correct decisions at important moments. How else do you create the circumstances under which, in the last 90 seconds of a final that was all but won, Ben Smith kicks so intelligently for the rapid Beauden Barrett to remove any lingering doubts? A player from any other side would have sought contact with a view to retaining possession.
That one decision illustrates why they still rule the world. Fair play to them.
Brian Ashton is a former England head coach, who guided the team to the World Cup final in 2007
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