All’s right in the rugby world.
The All Blacks are home and out of quarantine, captain Sam Cane has been crowned player of the year and we can all write the team’s ordinary performances off to COVID-19.
That’s about the tenor of things right now, isn’t it?
Cane, for instance, has proved his leadership credentials by playing well. Never mind that the team had a 50 percent win rate and suffered miserable defeats to Australia and Argentina.
You only had to watch the Pumas and Wallabies play each other to realise how limited each of those sides were. And yet they both cleaned up the All Blacks.
Again, though, that’s not the narrative now.
No, from head coach Ian Foster on down – who declared himself “satisfied’’ with 2020 – we’re sitting back and admiring these brave fellows in black. They’ve been through a lot, you know, what with having to justify their big pay packets by actually playing some rugby.
The domestic part was too taxing, mind. Not enough walkovers and byes and All Blacks-prescribed rest weeks.
Internationally, we’re being told to cherish the Tri-Nations trophy as if it means something and to savour the wins over Australia in Sydney and Argentina in Newcastle. They’re a true reflection of this team under Foster and Cane, not the other rubbish that was served up.
You’ll probably have detected a tone to this column by now. Maybe deduced that I haven’t been dazzled by the All Blacks’ performances this year and am not ready to rewrite history.
That I don’t feel that, because a panel gave Cane a prize and he did a little bit of media, we need to pretend this has been a stellar season of All Blacks rugby.
Sam Cane has played well this year. He’s an immensely brave man who always tries his best. But, let’s be frank, that’s the least we should expect from every All Black, let alone the captain.
We went through this before with Kieran Read, when he was skipper. There were periods when his play actually wasn’t that good but, boy, look out when he did play well.
Anyone who’d been critical of Captain Kieran prior was promptly told to tender an apology.
All Blacks teams need to win. And win well. New Zealand rugby hasn’t scaled the heights it has because we all endorse mediocrity. Far from it.
Excellence is the expectation and anything short of that is a failure.
Which takes me back to the top.
We seem to be acting – or least being told or encouraged to act – as if this has been a satisfactory All Blacks’ season.
The team’s admirable captain has been praised for being a fine fellow (which he is) and we’re all now looking forward to seeing coach Fozzie and the boys build on their Tri-Nations title-winning success. Is that a fair summary or not?
Again, Sam Cane is a good bloke. You know he’d be a great mate, who could be relied upon in any situation. Cane’s the kind of guy you’d be happy for your daughter to marry and you just know he’s going to enjoy a full and successful life after rugby.
But the team lost to two pretty ordinary teams in 2020 and won just three of the six tests they played. And when you get results like that, then the captain, the head coach and the first five-eighth are responsible. Always have been, always will be.
This has been as bad an All Blacks season that we could have imagined. To be that average, against such scant opposition, really isn’t an endorsement of those in charge.
Will it be any better in 2021? Maybe. It’s hard to be a lot more positive than that.
You suspect that if the team succeeds it will be in spite of Foster while, despite Cane’s many fine qualities as a man, he doesn’t look like the actual leader of that team. That’s Sam Whitelock.
The 10 bit is a worry, too. Either Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett needs to be in charge but, for the time being, it appears as if it’s neither.
We’ve come to the point where one needs a clear run without the other, otherwise we’re going to continue to get the muddled footy we’ve had ever since Mo’unga emerged. It’s nice to have multiple playmaking options, but the first-five has to have absolute authority and you don’t look at that All Blacks team and see anyone who’s taking ownership for the winning and losing of matches.
It’s easy to like Sam Cane. Just as it was to like the similarly-admirable Taine Randell, when he was All Blacks captain.
Only the team didn’t win under Randell. Or at least win often enough.
You didn’t develop a sense that Randell, for all his many qualities, had a command over that side or that the team were fully playing for him. The results bore that out and he was eventually replaced.
We can all sit around and write puff pieces about Sam Cane. We can garland him with awards and proclaim his greatness as a human being.
But it’s the results that matter in the end and 2020’s didn’t reflect that well on the All Blacks captain.
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