The 2007 Rugby World Cup is getting to an interesting stage, but is the result inevitable? What sparked this post is an article in the New Zealand Herald by Robbie Deans, Crusaders coach and formerly part of the All Black coaching team, in which he sets out the view that:
To win the World Cup, a team has to think it can. It then has to transfer this into a series of meaningful actions that grows belief.
While there will be up to eight so-called contenders who will be trying to convince themselves that they can win the tournament as we head towards the quarter-final phase, the reality is just two teams know they can win it: New Zealand and South Africa.
He then goes on to outline why this is so, i.e. that the South Africans have experience of winning, with the nucleus of the side beating New Zealand at under-21 level, plus the success of South African sides in the Super 14, plus strength of key players, plus effective leadership. He doesn’t elaborate on why New Zealand assumes it can win but I think we can take that as axiomatic – the All Blacks always assume they will win.
I agree with Robbie Deans, and I think his thesis is confirmed by the English win at the 2003 World Cup. It’s my belief that England knew they could win the Cup when they beat the All Blacks in Wellington in June 2003, even when down to thirteen men at one stage. This confidence took them through to ultimate victory in Sydney later in the year. New Zealand contributed to England’s Wellington victory through selection decisions and a lack of agility to adjust the game plan. In particular, that game marked the All Black debut of Ma’a Nonu, and the selection of a still green Rodney So’oialo at No 8. Now don’t get me wrong, Rodney is now a great player and one of the most effective All Black forwards, but in 2003 he was still learning. Similarly, Ma’a Nonu was very promising, still is, but to debut against a strong England side was a risk. The outcome was that New Zealand were reactive, played the game the way England wanted it played, and lost.
The risk that now arises, and which also derives from a New Zealand decision, is the point Robbie Deans makes about South Africa’s success in the Super 14. The winning records established by South African sides in this year’s competition can be largely attributed to the decision by New Zealand Rugby to rest key All Blacks for most of the Super 14 as part of the conditioning campaign for the World Cup (I know, I know, this could be challenged – but what are the Hurricanes without Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo). While the conditioning programme may well contribute to the All Blacks reaching the finals, it would be ironic if it also served as a mental conditioning for the Springboks, who should be their opponents in that final in Paris.
Today saw France defeat Ireland, and neither country looks, or plays, as though they believe they can win the World Cup. I was surprised that Robbie Deans didn’t include Australia in his list of believers, especially since they are the only side to have beaten the All Blacks this year, and also because they have the star players and are the most agile thinkers of the major contenders. While some of their star players might be just too old this time around, there are others who are still young, fresh and fast.
So things are starting to get a bit interesting, even if it is only around whether England, Ireland, Wales and France can stagger into the quarter-finals, or suffer some ignominy at the hands of more lowly-ranked nations.
One thing, though, is that this World Club has been clearly marked by the triumph of the blogs as a means of communication about the events and people’s take on them. Great engagement!