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FEATURE Why the pain of 2019 is the All Blacks' greatest weapon

Why the pain of 2019 is the All Blacks' greatest weapon
10 months ago

There are plenty of reasons to believe the All Blacks can win a fourth World Cup this year, but one in particular stands out.

Unquestionably, they have world-class players across the board. They have strong leaders in Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Ardie Savea, and Aaron Smith – all of whom have captained their country.

There is incredible pace in the back three, trickery in the play-making department and genuine quality about their set-piece and breakdown work.

It’s a squad which screams World Cup winning potential, but the best reason for believing in them is there are 16 players carrying the grave pain of 2019 with them. This is the factor which may end up counting the most come the knockout rounds.

Both Ireland and France have beaten the All Blacks in this World Cup cycle. In fact, both teams have looked obviously better than the All Blacks for much of the period.

But history shows enduring adversity at a World Cup can be a critical growth tool. Or, more simply put, there may be some truth to the idea players have to first lose at a World Cup before they can win one.

The bulk of the Wallabies squad bundled out of the 1995 quarter-final by England bounced back four years later to win in 1999. Just as many in the England 2003 vintage had been in Paris four years earlier when South Africa’s Jannie de Beer drop-kicked them out of the competition. And of course, there is no better adversity-to-the-fore story than the failed All Blacks of 2007 returning to be champions in 2011.

No-one realised it at the time, but that quarter-final loss to France in 2007 was perhaps the best thing that happened to New Zealand rugby generally and the All Blacks specifically.

The disappointment was intense and when the team came home, they began a long and detailed process of digging deep for answers as to why it had gone so horribly wrong.

They turned over every stone, and no one searched harder than captain Richie McCaw.

He would reveal many years later that, “I questioned whether I was good enough to do it or the right person to do it.

“You can either man up and get on with it or drift away and remember that experience as one you couldn\’t handle.

“Being the person I am, as soon as I thought like that I thought, ‘There\’s no way I\’d want to do that.’ I remember one day I got over it and got on with it.”

Once he recommitted, and star fly-half Dan Carter also signed on for four more years, New Zealand Rugby decided its best bet was to double down and retain the coaching trio that had failed in France and a handful of other players.

Even in 2008, the All Blacks were focused hard on 2011, determined to finally win a World Cup.

They scraped over the line in the end, mostly because of their sheer desire to win. They were hanging on in the final, desperation their key weapon in the end.

After winning in 2011, the All Blacks became the first team to go back-to-back, defending their title in 2015 before winning their pool and quarter-final in 2019.

They were on an 18-game unbeaten run at the World Cup when they met England in Yokohama. Eleven of their matchday 23 had been involved in 2015, and the other 12 had no previous tournament experience.

Not only had the team never experienced World Cup adversity, but many also hadn’t known any kind of bad patch or disappointment throughout their All Blacks careers.

Between 2012 and 2015 New Zealand lost only three Tests, and as they came into the 2019 tournament, they had only suffered six defeats since 2016.

When they lost 19-7 to England, head coach Steve Hansen suggested the defeat, while hard to stomach at the time, was something that would have extreme value in four years.

“What I do know is the young men that are going to come back have a personal pain.

“They\’ve experienced something you can\’t tell them about, you can\’t convince them about until it\’s personal to themselves. And it\’s now personal.
“So that will make them a little bit more dangerous. I look forward to seeing them grow and continue to grow. And I look forward to the game doing the same thing, because the more competitive it is, the greater it is for the game.”

But what makes the 2023 All Blacks squad yet more powerful, is the depth of the adversity they have endured since losing to England.

The bulk of them have been with the All Blacks for most of this cycle and it is one which has produced more bad nights than any other four-year period.

These have been the most testing and demanding times of the professional era as New Zealand plunged to historic lows and suffered unwanted firsts.

They lost a home series to Ireland, after which assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar were fired. They were beaten twice by Argentina, lost three consecutive home Tests and at one stage last year had an eight-game run where their win ratio was 25%.

Ian Foster himself came within a whisker of losing his job and for most of the last 12-18 months, the team has lived under almost intolerable pressure and scrutiny, with the country’s largest newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, even running a front-page editorial in August last year calling for a wholesale cleanout of coaching staff and senior playing personnel.

There is no doubt, however, what hasn’t killed them made them stronger. Of all the performances within the All Blacks’ current 11-game unbeaten run, victory in Dunedin against the Wallabies best illustrated how much they have grown and how ready they are to have a crack at the World Cup.

They were 17-3 down at half-time and struggling to build any cohesion.

It was all Australia and the All Blacks needed to find the mental strength to stay in the game, knowing if the Wallabies scored first, it was going to be a long, long way back.

That they managed to claw their way into the match and win 23-20 with a last-minute penalty suggested they have the depth of character and self-belief to win knockout games, which are often about hanging in there through the tough moments, finding ways to reclaim momentum and score points.

Certainly, 12 months ago it’s unlikely this All Blacks team would have escaped with the win in Dunedin – back then they didn’t have the resolve, or ability to stay united or focused when under pressure.

But now they do, because they have been through so much adversity, which has taught them how to be resilient.

As Foster said in Dunedin: “We were second best by some distance in that first half. They threw a lot at us, and to come back and show a lot of composure under that scoreboard pressure and to squeeze them and win in the last few minutes is a great lesson for this team.

“We’ve had three good wins this year and to come off a different type of win … that’s what Test matches are about and it’s going to hold us in good stead for later on.

“We all know it wasn\’t perfect, but we’ll take it.”

The All Blacks are going to France with almost half their squad carrying deep personal pain from the last tournament and most of the other half having come through a tough international baptism these past few years.

 

It means this team is battle-hardened, mentally tough and certain about its ability to fight its way from behind and scrap for wins in the big pressure games. That could be a potent cocktail.

Comments

12 Comments
H
HOFer 312 days ago

The 2019 team was on the slide. Now those players are even older, many past their prime. The context doesn’t work. Perhaps the right team to make this case for is France, who had young players like Dupont/Ntamack in Japan.

D
DCS125 313 days ago

Funny, a few months back, even a few weeks ago, the likes of Rugby pass were negative about NZs chances and many putting NZ down. Now the tongues are out again, why is that then?.

m
mikejjules 314 days ago

Seeing as NZ is rhee only country to go back to back you could pluck any winner or if a cap and say "these guys lost 4 years earlier". And the 2011 win was mainly through a game plan that said "let's take it out of the ref's hands".....their analysis said that they were losing some games because of some questionable calls. So vs France in the last quarter they trusted their D and said let's not challenge for the ball and give the ref any reason to ping us.
Got a couple of things right....retaining Henry was critical in this. And the system was put in place because if the pain from losing in 2007.

H
Henry 314 days ago

I agree. Boks won last time and look at their losses before the 2019 World Cup.

J
Jmann 314 days ago

The 2019 team was more than good enough to win the whole thing. One disastrous game against and unusually efficient England aside they easily had the measure of every other team they played. Including the Bok who they smashed in that opening game.

P
Pecos 314 days ago

About a year ago, in the pre-Ryan/Schmidt phase this team had NO chance. The 1st thing Ryan did was bring in 3 props who weren't even in Foster's squad at the time. Lomax, De Groot, & newbie Fletcher Newell. Schmidt's role as mentor was upgraded to full time asst coach. The fruits of those coaching changes are now being seen. So, for me, the losses in 2022 have to be seen in that context. The ABs are now legit contenders but like all RWCs success will likely come down to coaching, selection, injuries, & ability to handle curve balls, all things being equal.

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