This week we will mostly concern ourselves with history, just desserts and scheduling…
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with history, just desserts and scheduling…
A conversation I had with a Kiwi not long ago ran thus: 'So are you happy now you finally have it?' Him: 'Mate, it's not just a case of happy…it's like the whole nation's at peace with itself once more, like the end of some uncontrollable humanitarian or economic crisis. We all feel like we can carry on as normal again and start living our lives.'
The 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France was, for the New Zealanders, perhaps the worst moment in their rich rugby history. It was also a freak result given the match statistics, which included a staggering 73 per cent territorial advantage to the ABs, France having to make over 300 tackles and a whole host of other stats that might normally be found in a 40-point win.
Many French players doubled personal tackle records that day, they did not concede a penalty the entire second half and of course there was that forward pass to Freddie Michalak for the crucial try, missed by the officials and which, after a long and costly professional inquiry process by the NZRU, was given as the reason New Zealand failed in 2007. Not a lack of planning, not a missed beat in the coaching, but plain, simple human error and some extraordinary circumstances.
It's little wonder the ABs found defeat tough to digest, it's also little wonder that thoughts of match-fixing clouded the mind of Graham Henry in the aftermath, even to the extent he felt compelled to present a case for it to his employers.
Henry also confessed to feeling physically sick in the weeks after the defeat, again little wonder when you consider he was being asked to re-apply for a job in which he had one of the best-ever records, all against a background of wailing and gnashing of teeth that once again, best ever team or not, the All Blacks had choked again. Five years on, thinking back to the extraordinary pressure of the time, it's more than feasible to consider that back then, Henry might have been wrestling with reality somewhat.
This is a pretty tame revelation though, a truthful recount of how disappointed Henry was that his work had not panned out. He's not insisted it was match-fixing, just said that at the time he found it to be the only logical consideration. Fair enough really – for all you coaches out there, for every one who can tell me he's always found referees to be fair and just, I'll give you another 99 who will immediately recall a game, even a series of games, in which defeat was wholly down to being 'screwed by the refs'. Henry's claim that some 40-odd penalties could have been awarded to the All Blacks is a truism of pretty much every game of rugby going.
So we don't really know what compels some responders to say that this 'damages Henry's reputation', 'brings into question his credibility' or will make him 'ridiculed in many parts of the world'. It's just a coach being a coach, telling a story of an emotional reaction to a particularly stressful day. Let him tell – he's probably earned the right.
If there is a lasting image of the weekend's South African Super Rugby semi-final, it came in minute 52.
A Sharks player took the ball into contact and awaited support. Meanwhile, Jean de Villiers, noting the proximity of one of the Sharks players, took it upon himself to: a) stand a good 2m on the Sharks' side of the offside line, b) sidestep from one side to the other, c) lower his centre of gravity and d) actually stick his arms out behind him in some warped kind of Batman style, all to make sure he was comprehensively blocking the Sharks' cleaner from getting to the ruck.
Sadly, for De Villiers is a terrific player worth much more than such acts, it epitomised the Stormers this year: the sheer negativity with which they have approached every game, the lack of ambition to do anything beyond stop the opposition, the frequent disregard for the spirit of the game. Their defeat showed that to win championships, you need to have a little more than an ability to kick, chase, disrupt and stifle, need to be capable of chasing a game and scoring points. It serves them right for deluding themselves too – for this Stormers team has players who could light up a game if given the initiative.
It was deliciously ironic that the Sharks should score their first try in a manner to which the Stormers are so accustomed – kick it as high as possible and get on the end of it – and it has set up a significantly more worthy and exciting-looking Super Rugby final than we might otherwise have had.
Warren Gatland must be giddy with excitement at the moment.
His counterpart for the Lions tour next year, Robbie Deans, has already cast a nervous eye over the extended Super Rugby schedule and noted that, unlike Graham Henry in 2005 and Peter de Villiers in 2009, he will have barely a week to get his team to Test level before the Lions come-a-calling for the first Test in June.
Quite aside from that, there's the issue of how to cram the touring side's matches against the Super Rugby franchises into the schedule, with Deans advocating an extra two weeks to be added into the June break. Even that would probably not be enough. There are going to be some weary and under-prepared Wallabies on those fields next year.
Meanwhile Gatland will have, with the exception of those players required for semi-finals and finals, the squad together and feverishly sweating up a storm a full month before the first Test. They'll have time to get over injury, long hours to learn the new patterns… pretty much everything they need for a successful tour actually.
Which is good for him, but surely in the light of this, surely now, even without the constant bickering and cheapening of competitions and events down the past few years, the global schedule needs a serious look at? We're in danger of compromising the Lions tour as well at the moment…
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson