Justin Marshall couldn’t quite believe it. There he was last Tuesday morning, fresh from co-commentating on New Zealand’s Bledisloe Cup mauling of Australia in rainy Auckland, heading into the South African bush in a Land Rover driven by Bryan Habana to play some rugby with wildlife rangers – amongst the wildlife.
“I have been to some interesting spots before in my time and they have all proved to be challenging, but this will be taking me into an area and an environment where I have never put the boots on in,” enthused the 46-year-old former All Blacks scrum-half to RugbyPass during the 160 kilometre trek north from Port Elizabeth to a game reserve in Kwandwe.
“But in saying that I guess the one thing that you always looked forward to within the game was something new, something exciting and anything that you haven’t seen before. This is definitely going to tick that box in many areas and for me, that is really exciting. It will be interesting for me being a New Zealander where if you see a spider you freak out.”
Freaking out is far from what New Zealanders expect at the looming World Cup. Clinical and composed is the expectation and Marshall can’t wait. He isn’t be travelling to Japan in his usual capacity for television punditry. Sky NZ doesn’t have the rights for the matches, but he had other bits and bobs lined up and has even taken the precaution of delaying his flight home until the Monday after the final rather than the day after. An All Blacks three in a row? You bet!
“I’m really looking forward to being part of the World Cup in a different capacity than TV this year and it’s going to be a good World Cup. Far out. Northern hemisphere teams are looking threatening, Australia have shown they can beat New Zealand, South Africa have as well. It’s going to be good and I’m glad I’m going to be there.
I picked up some precious cargo this morning!! Marshy and I en route to @KwandweReserve for a pretty unique @LandRoverRugby experience #LandRoverRugby #BushRugby #DrivenBeyond ? pic.twitter.com/0PK2gQvPqq
— Bryan Habana (@BryanHabana) August 20, 2019
“There is a lot of hard work going in to try and get to that stage [retaining the title] and nobody is more appreciative of it than the All Blacks. But it is a nice feeling to think that the All Blacks can be in the position to do that.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be the hardest compared to the other two titles because of the quality of the opposition. But I have made sure that I booked my flight, not for the day after but for the day after that just in case they do it. If they do win it and I do celebrate, the chances of me getting on that plane the next day were incredibly slim.”
There has been a renewed swagger to New Zealand rugby since last weekend. Being humbled in Perth by their great rivals from across the Tasman the previous week had left the whole country on edge fearing their team might not lift itself up off the canvas. It was wasted energy. The All Blacks came very good, giving Australia a 36-0 rollicking, and it left Marshall impressed they had so emphatically risen to the challenge.
“That is just New Zealand,” he said about the nervous atmosphere that existed in the country after their team’s record 47-26 walloping the previous week. “The tension is a little heightened because there is a very important tournament coming up and New Zealanders don’t tend to like the All Blacks losing at the best of times, let alone losing Test matches in World Cup year.
“That thing you throw onto that – world record losses – doesn’t make people feel great. There was a little more edge I guess and panic to where the All Blacks were than there normally is. New Zealanders have got better accepting the All Blacks losing. It doesn’t happen often and they appreciate now that it does happen, especially with the quality opposition is a lot better in the world.
“But there will always be the elements of people that find it really difficult to deal with and that is just the reality of the way the game is seen in New Zealand. I didn’t see a week of anything more heightened than normal apart from a little more worrying about how easily and comfortably and emphatically they were beaten and people were more so not worried about the loss but worried about could this happen at the World Cup? They were just a little anxious.”
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Absolutely most incredible experience in South Africa Eastern Cape with @landrover and the legend that is @bryanhabana_ played some bush rugby and Rassie Erasmus if you need him #stillgotit thanks everyone unforgettable experience @csm_worldwide #rugbyworldcup #bushrugby @1stxvrugby @landrovernz @landroversa #landroverrugby
One tactic that had them on tenterhooks was the positioning of Richie Mo’unga at out-half, a selection with the knock-on consequence of regular No10 Beauden Barrett playing at full-back. It’s a bold gambit looking down the barrel of the World Cup starting so soon, but Marshall now has every confidence it will do the trick in the Far East where the fast-track conditions are made for inventive, expansive rugby.
“It was always going to take a little bit of time,” he reasoned about Steve Hansen’s reshuffle. “Not so much from the perspective of Richie Mo’onuga, because it is a position he is accustomed to. He was always going to slot in there okay, it was just about getting more time in that jersey as an All Black.
“Beauden Barrett was a different situation. He played pretty most of his rugby in the last two years in particular and even since the World Cup as a No10 and the only time he was playing full-back previous to that were when he was coming off the bench for the All Blacks when Dan Carter was involved.
“It was going to take him time to grow some maturity in that position and to get a better feel for it. There is no doubt that he can play there, he is world-class but positionally you are so different than when you play at 10. You’re in different areas of the field defensively as well as with the ball.
“The game last weekend started to show that he was getting a real awareness and he was catching a lot of the ball on the full rather than it bouncing to him, so he is starting to positionally get better. It’s starting to now really gel and they are expecting and hoping in attack to throw some dangerous players more at the opposition with the ball in hand.
“The Test match against Australia was one of those Test matches you like to have just before you go to a World Cup because it had a result that affected the opportunity for the All Blacks to retain the Bledisloe Cup.
? Aaron Smith…and the pukana-dive to finish.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) August 18, 2019
“It was a similar situation that they will be in (at the World Cup), which is win at all costs. The tension and the pressure leading into the match, plus the ability for Steve Hansen, the All Black coach, with all that external pressure, to let some players who hadn’t played a lot of Test rugby – Sevu Reece, only his second Test, George Bridge, his first run-on start in a big Test match – for the All Blacks to go out and play that well under that pressure was really encouraging.”
The World Cup pool schedule is curious, though. New Zealand meet South Africa, their other great rivals, in the September 21 opener in Yokohama and won’t face similar calibre opposition until their quarter-final a month later on the weekend of October 19. That is a long time between full-on Test outings, a long time in a culturally very different environment such as Japan.
Marshall, though, doesn’t believe there are echoes of 2007, the tournament in France where a pool that left the All Blacks undercooked resulted in them being picked off by the French in a shock quarter-final outcome in Cardiff.
The #BledisloeCup remains in New Zealand for 2019.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) August 17, 2019
“That first game is going to be an absolute belter. South Africa are the form team in the world – and that is including the All Blacks. That is an opportunity for the All Blacks to really gauge how their World Cup campaign is going to go and kick on from there.
“They have always had to deal with taking on, with the greatest respect, opposition that is not going to be quarter-final, semi-final calibre. That is just the reality of the way the World Cup is structured. They have to deal with that, micromanage the team, make sure that players don’t go stale and they work hard within those games and don’t get complacent.
“That is probably your biggest obstacle, that you switch off physically and then you get to a quarter-final and you get found out a little. But the last couple of World Cups they have handled those quarter-final games, the big ones, and come out of the gate after pretty average performances in the pool games.
“They have come out of those matches and played bloody well. Really well with great intensity. I don’t think they will get caught on the hop again if you are digging down that pathway of 2007. They learnt a hell of a lot from that quarter-final loss to France and they extricated a few demons when they got them in the quarter-final of the last World Cup where they absolutely annihilated France. They are a lot better for having had that loss a good few years ago.
“One of the other things the All Blacks have is a real strength in depth in their fitness. People talk about their bench coming on and being skilful and adding. But it’s not just skill, they add a level of fitness to be able to push the opposition and to keep pushing. That is really difficult to combat in the latter stages of the game.
“I certainly don’t think they will be affected by it in any other way more so than any other team. They will be looking forward to those conditions. That is why they played two games out there last year, they played Japan and also played Australia to get a little taste of what it will be like.”
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) July 17, 2019
It’s now nine years since Marshall hung up the boots professionally, winding down his career at Saracens after a European adventure that included stints at Leeds, Ospreys and Montpellier following a stellar 81-cap Test sojourn with the All Blacks intertwined with multiple trophy wins with the all-conquering Crusaders.
Fresh from his 46th birthday, he is thrilled that his enthusiasm for the sport is as strong as ever, an attachment considerably helped by him unselfishly throwing on the boots and playing grassroots rugby in his late 30s for Wakatipu in picturesque Queenstown.
“It’s a conversation Bryan and I have had, looking at the future of rugby and where it is going. The young kids of today are getting thrown into the game so much younger and younger. They are getting so much volume at such a young age.
— Wakatipu Rugby Club (@WakatipuC) April 21, 2019
“I only ever picked up and got involved in rugby because I enjoyed it. I loved playing the game and I hope that we recognise that in the future, that we don’t push our kids too hard, that they actually go out there and throw the ball around with a smile on their faces and have fun.
“That is probably the one thing that I got once I retired. I went back and played as you do some Barbarians fixtures, World XVs, but I also played rugby with my local club team for a couple of years. It took me outside of the professional environment into a changing room where the first thing you get handed is a beer.
“You sit around with your team-mates and know there is no analysis to be done, no ice baths. There is just a game and that is the game for 80 per cent of people in the world. It put a smile on my face and made me think do you know what, I still love this game and I still enjoy being a part of it.
“That is why I’m doing what I am doing now because if I wasn’t working in TV or travelling around the world doing things within the game I’d be involved in it anyway. It’s not something I want to switch away from because that is my passion.”
WATCH: Check out how Land Rover ambassador Bryan Habana and New Zealand’s Justin Marshall got on at Kwandwe game reserve in the Eastern Cape when they played rugby with the local rangers amongst the wildlife
Land Rover is an official worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby
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