The All Blacks’ inability to trounce the Pumas in Wellington has given me cause to look at the expectations I personally, and indeed the New Zealand rugby public in general, put on our World Champion team. The media has widely criticized the performances of the All Blacks against Los Pumas, but the fact remains that they are, after just three rounds, streaks ahead on the Rugby Championship ladder, and have won three from three.
My first reaction following last Saturday night’s clash was that the All Blacks had been below par, and let’s be honest, they weren’t mind-blowingly good. But the weather conditions were poor, and the Argentinians were fantastic. The visitors tackled like their lives depended on it, and any other team in world rugby would have been on the backfoot in similar circumstances.
And we probably need to learn to respect Argentinian Rugby a little more. These guys aren’t Romania or Uruquay. Without doubt they are one of the world’s top ten teams, and in reality probably sit around 7th or 8th in that list. To think that we should comfortably beat the 7th or 8th best team in the world each and every time we play them would be incomprehensible to any other rugby playing nation.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t expect excellence from them every time they pull on that black jersey. We are used to seeing them excel, used to seeing them sit at the top of the world rankings, and that dominance has created an aura around the All Blacks which is intrinsically intimidating to their opposition.
But maybe we need to get our heads around the fact that the ‘perfect’ game of rugby is a myth. Even if the All Blacks were to play a Japanese Schoolboys team, I doubt they would score from every single move, nail every single lineout, have every single kick fly from the boot in a perfect spiral, etc.
One of the finest performances I recall seeing the All Blacks put on was in a 43-6 win over Australia in shocking conditions at Wellington’s old Athletic Park in 1996. With an outstanding team on the field, which included Sean Fitzpatrick, Christian Cullen, Zinzan Brooke and Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks were scintillating in the rain. But, while it’s been a while since I watched that game, I am certain there were dropped passes, times when the Wallabies had momentum, and times when things didn’t go quite to plan.
Things didn’t go quite to plan on Saturday against Los Pumas. The visitors were better than anyone had anticipated, their passion and enthusiasm almost impossible to match. The conditions were poor, and the combinations with Aaron Cruden coming back in to the starting side at late notice didn’t quite click. But the All Blacks still won. And won comfortably in the end.
These inflated expectations aren’t all our own fault, as fans of New Zealand rugby. The coaches and the players themselves fuel this, with their constant pursuit of the perfect performance, and a stoic, kiwi-battler mentally that refuses to acknowledge a good performance and accept any plaudits.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we just have to understand where these words come from. The pursuit of excellence in the sporting world is admirable, and if the coaches feel they need to downplay a win or point out the areas that didn’t work, rather than those that did, in order to keep their players improving and striving towards further development, then so be it.
In recent sporting history, one of the most dominant sides that springs to my mind is the Australian cricket team of the 90’s and early 2000s. Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Glen McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, etc, etc. – a group of players who were incredibly professional, and single-minded in their commitment to remaining on top of the world of cricket.
Yet not everything always went their way. They didn’t score 500 runs every time they batted and then make the opposition follow-on. They prided themselves on consistency – consistently winning, no matter how big the challenges within each match may have been, and consistently peaking at the right time when the most critical matches rolled around.
We need to accept that other countries know how to play rugby. That other countries, in fact every country, is racking their brains trying to create plans and moves which will allow them to beat us, and that, from time to time, those plans will come off.
I’ll never sit down in front of an All Blacks game prepared to see them lose, but the reality is that if they win the majority of their games, and peak in time to claim silverware when it’s on offer, that’s all we can really ask of them.
Still, they’d better not lose to those Argies in the return leg!!!