All Blacks: Sporting World Champion of Chokers? Part Two!
Yes, O Reader of the Blackest of Blogs, it is that time again! If you?ve lost ?that? feeling, it?s time to get it Gaga-going-again, as we read this message in a bottle... our bottle!
If you are a little confused by this introduction, you should really read Part One before we begin, where you will understand that we are presently not Kidding... and neither was he!
Now that we have swallowed hard, answering the charge as to who is best equipped to answer this ‘gagging’ question, let us now move onto the really good stuff... for the opposition... examining the rugby moments that mattered!
The Charge: That the All Blacks Have Been the Team to Beat at Each Successive World Cup!
Herein lies the biggest argument used by those applying the Choker tag! The argument goes that the All Blacks have been hot favourites each and every successive World Cup, have been the form team in between each World Cup, and leading up to each World Cup... UNTIL... until they have been bundled out... AGAIN... consistently following their modus operandi of bottling it in the big-time, blaming one excuse after another!
Is this Valid? While there is merit in some of how this is framed, it goes too far. Let me explain! The compelling reason is that it romanticises the All Blacks favouratism as a dead-cert in a two-horse race. Like many ventures in life, humanity is prone to put a warm mellow glow into an historical context, thereby infusing more life than is warranted. Yes, the All Blacks have been labelled favourites, or among the favourites for each Rugby World Cup, but dead-cert at each event, I think me not.
As one who has viewed every World Cup and every World Cup Exit, I am not ‘entirely’ blowing chunks, therefore, let us examine the circumstances surrounding each event!
In 1991, after the 1987 World Cup in New Zealand, All Black rugby was at its behemoth-best, and dominated until late 1990, where the shock and awe of their play was being replaced with the tried and true, as the opposition began to believe victory was once again possible, and started to play like it. With the loss in Sydney to the Wallabies 21-12, followed by a narrow 6-3 victory in Auckland, meaing Lord Bledisloe was maintained in the year of 1991, the signs were there that all was not well.
While time would ultimately be telling, the All Blacks were tracking on the down-side of the curve, with the Wallabies beginning to go in the opposite direction. The four previous years of All Blacks dominance would not be dismissed in popular expectation, however. As the 1991 World Cup began to unfold, it was clear that this All Blacks edition were playing on the dregs of the team that had so dominated world rugby.
While seeing is believing for most, Lansdowne Road was crystal in its clarity, and as this individual watched on his stretcher in an early Christchurch morning, it was Wallabies who awakened the dawn. The All Blacks were out of the 91 Rugby World Cup, losing 16-6, a Semi-Final too soon! Were the All Blacks favourites, did they choke on the opportunity of a life-time? While they certainly had it in them to battle through, this World Cup was at least a year too far, as their form had followed suit, and their curve had flat-lined!
As 1995 rolled into a rugby worldview, All Blacks rugby, which had previously been taking a "Waltzing-to-Wallabying" direction, was beginning to find its feet again, and with new talent, such as one, Andrew Mehrtens, and a oh, Oh, OH, Jonah Lomu, on the horizon, the All Blacks dream once again began to take hold.
The first signs were in a pre-World Cup build-up match versus Canada, as the Boys began to play a different brand of Rugby, Total Rugby, leading up to this African event. As the Tournament began, while the Wallabies were reigning Champions, like the 91 affair, they were heading south, with the All Blacks rapidly on the rise. This would reach its zenith in the Semi-Final when the Behemoth was truly unleashed on the wing, with Keith Quinn even struggling to throw a line, as the All Blacks put the English in their place, and the fear of Jonah into All of Africa.
Then the final took place! While the World Cup Final result is etched into rugby and New Zealand folklore, the events leading up to this moment struggle to find a consistent narrative. While much is made of the Suzy line, what gets lost in the confusion and noise is that there is no doubt on the condition of the All Blacks players. Whether Suzy was up to her old tricks again, in this respect, proves irrelevant! Spiro Zavos has documented the events surrounding the food poisoning, and even if you doubt the malicious nature of how this happened, such does not change the impact on the players. While the scoreboard will always record a Springbok victory, in all honesty, the fact that the All Blacks were so close, is a credit to the team and ethos! Mehrtens was my man, but how could he miss! Springboks 15 All Blacks 12!
Were the All Blacks favourites for the 1995 Rugby World Cup? Sure, they were talked about when the tournament began, but it is too easy to forget that these were not dominant All Black years, and while their favouritism grew as the tournament entered its final stage, the only thing the players were choking on was their previous meal!
This leads us into 1999 which, according to Patrick Kidd, is the fabled year, when the choking world would be truly gagging for it! The year 1999 would seem to be providing some relief to All Blacks fans, after the disaster that was the “5 in a row, Hart must go” year of 1998. Yes, 5 losses in a row would nearly be enough for the All Blacks to lose their coaching 'Hart', and while he would survive, many other seasoned All Blacks had to let it go, and it really did hurt! With Taine Randell, the next annointed leader of the All Blacks army, even by the lofty standards of Sean “Full Credit” Fitzpatrick, 1999 was the calm after the storm of 1998... Well, until the All Blacks were blanked by the Wallabies on a Sydney-Saturday night, in the final Tri-Nations/ Bledisloe, before the World Cup in the North.
However, while that proved ominous, things were looking dark and glorious as the All Blacks led the Frogs 24-10 into the 2nd Half, in the 1999 World Cup Semi-Final. Jonah had been at his block-busting best, and while things seemed a little unsettled in the All Blacks camp, the scoreboard was smiling. If only that smile would not turn upside down! All rugby Hell was about to break loose as the Frogs went on heat, outscoring the Blacks 33-7 in a relentless period where they could do no wrong. Breathless, beaten, and seemingly helpless and hopeless, the All Blacks would be bundled out... again... France 43 All Blacks 31!
The All Blacks ‘Must’ have been favourites this time, in 99? Yes, they would have won the popular vote leading up the Tournament, and even as the tournament itself unfolded. With the help of another, Paddy, O’Brien, the Frogs were blessed to even make it through to this Semi-Final clash, but they caught lightning in a bottle in that 2nd half, and were sublime!
The Big Question remains, did the All Blacks choke... did they bottle it? I expect many to conclude that given the Blacks position with 30 mins remaining in the Semi-Final, the game was theirs to lose... and choke they did! While I do believe they are not guilt-free from the charge that more could have been done to halt the Napoleon advance, such a charge diminishes from a sublime period of French rugby.
If Sport is such a sure bet, which is the logical underpinning for the ‘choking’ charge to have credence, then the concept of competition in sport, is a context void of reality, with the onus for a result, entirely on one side in the equation, and in this case, the All Blacks.
The 1999 Rugby World Cup was a catastrophic event, not only because of the result, but because of the very nature of the result. The Frogs hadn’t simply won through the backdoor, they had charged through the front, making a definitive mark in the world of rugby! Yes, the All Blacks hadn’t helped by not doing more to stop France from playing all the rugby... but that should be pressing point... France played all the rugby in the end, taking the Semi away with their play!
Choking? I don’t think so, as such denotes a self-inflicted cause and effect! Not Doing All They Could? You Better Believe It! The fact that this has happened again and again, does not help when examining this question, and while drawn out explanations do not play well in this sound bite culture, such explanations are really required when examining the World Cups that were!
While 2003 and 2007 are still before us, I hope this hap-hap-happy journey down memory lane has highlighted some of these historical moments of rugby illness! In our next time together on this subject, I want to briefly touch on the 2003 Rugby World Cup, while spending the majority of our time on 2007, as this event is most recent, and in my mind, most tumultuous! There are some things that need to be said about 2007, and I sense some strong opinions coming forth... So Please, Stay Tuned!
Some reading this post may be too young or too-rugby-recent to be able to comment on all these World Cups, while others may have watched every one, and can recall the turmoil surrounding each reality (except 87 of course). Whenever you are on this spectrum, we definitely want to read your words, have your input, and share your perspective. What Say You?
Until Next Time