Without having another great big pull over hanging out with him and doing more namedropping, when I had lunch with Bernie Larkham a few weeks back I told him I thought the Australian team’s greatest strength is their ability to come from behind.
I really seemed to have caught his attention with this.
I expanded by saying I thought it was almost now an inherent part of Wallaby culture that the team has the ability to absorb pressure, keep level heads and continue performing the tasks which will produce points and hopefully a win.
Take a step back and look at some of the drubbings Australia suffered at the hands of their SANZAR partners ten years ago, and how after the removal of the unfortunate Greg Smith (Rip), and the installation of Rod McQueen, the injected sense of belief entirely revolutionized the attitude of the team.
Sure there was also a yawning gap in the team’s make up at Fly-Half, which was filled with aplomb by none other than my aforementioned best mate Steve (cough).
But then look to the Bledisloe cup win at the House of pain in 1998. You will see tries from debutant second rower Tom Bowman, sea-gulling on the sideline and sprinting over like a winger to score in the corner. Then the brilliant splitting of the All Black defence up the centre by the veteran Jason Little for another, and of course, the precursor, the first try of the match to Australia by the legendary Matt Burke, which was scored after one of the most superbly engineered and sustained team efforts of multi-phase rugby. I cannot recall exactly but it is an astounding amount like some twenty-eight phases, where Australia played the most professional, aggressive and controlled Rugby imaginable.
I can still hear Gary Pearse and Gordy Bray’s disbelief at what they had witnessed. No one does this to the great All Blacks, in Carisbrook of all places; surrounded by thousands of beered-up students with bicycle inner tubes taped down the inside leg of their pants so they can piss on the concrete steps of the bleachers without missing a second of the action.
Think I’m joking..?
Think again. Ahh; what a lovely culture.
This was against a team full of such game breakers as Lomu, Cullen and Wilson. I can assure you there were twelve more men on the paddock at any given time who were just as dangerous. Christian Cullen, my favorite ever All Black, which yes in my vocabulary IS a contradiction in terms. He had that campo quality to make the pace of a game change whenever he touched the ball. I think this was also the season where as he was tackled over the corner post by a Springbok, he deliberately bounced the ball basketball-style under the South African and back into the hands of Goldie for him to score. Genius.
And of course the series decider was the unforgettable test match at the SFS where Burkie’ scored all of Australia’s points, tackling Cullen over the tryline in Greegan-esque fashion, twisting him – in mid-air mind you – and preventing the brilliant All Black fullback from scoring, and destroying his own shoulder in the process.
And who, in this brilliant series, was present, the last defender, just beaten by the scorer at each and every Australian try..? All Black captain Taine Randall. A great Rugby footballer who was forever thereafter a victim of an unforgiving New Zealand public.
The All Blacks suffer from two enormous flaws: They think their shit don’t stink, and the bogan citizens of New Zealand (I have a right to say this: I have sat at a test match as the only gold speck amongst a sea of seething cretinous Black) place so much pressure on these blokes they cannot afford to do anything less than win.
The problem with always winning is there is no understanding of what it’s like to lose or be on the back-foot. There is no come from behind culture amongst the All Blacks, they are too used to winning, and have no concept of being an underdog.
Every time a team, be it Australia, RSA or France (there’s no one else to come close for a long, long time, with Scotland, The Pumas and the Irish having NEVER beat them) put’s it to the ‘Blacks, and play Rugby against them just they way they like to play it (relentlessly) they fold up like lawn-chairs in gale season.
David Campese has hit out today against the RWC organizers saying it’s unfair for the ‘Minnow’ nations to be trounced by such heavyweights as The SANZAR and 6 Nation teams in the World Cup. As much as Campo is a font of foot in mouth commentary, he makes a very salient point. With the participation increasing from 16 to 20 nations in ’99, there are now even more weaker participants than when the boy from Queenbeyan danced the dance. Unlike snakes and ladders (Soccer/Football) there is less of an even playing field across the tournament, pardon the expression. However, The IRB needs to include these teams to ensure the growth of the sport in a world full of followers of snakes and ladders. But these amateurs will continue to be whipping boys for the professional well resourced tough guys.
The game, naturally, is growing tighter as professionalism creeps across the code worldwide. The first tournament in 1987 was evidence of an existing gulf between the top nations and the (then) weaker sides. An example of this was the All Blacks scoring 74 points against Fiji and the French scoring 13 tries against Zimbabwe.
On the surface, it would suggest that statistically things aren’t improving. The highest amount of points scored against a nation during a Rugby World Cup is 145 by the All Blacks against Japan in 1995.
And of course the widest margin was 142 points to Australia in a match against Namibia (nil) at the Adelaide Oval in 2003. The most the Adelaide Oval scoreboard operator has had to do since the late great David Hookes hit his famed 43 minute, 34 ball century in October 1982, vs. Victoria.
I’m afraid Campo is right; these nations will do it tough. Perhaps the more intelligent and reasonable approach may be for the stronger nations to begin some form of mentorship with weaker nations in the region they come from. The Bok’s could cadetship other African Nation players in some of their-between-world-cup camps. England could help the Portuguese; The Argie’s do the same for the Uruguay..?
In the spirit of the game this could be a real success. Perhaps it could even be beneficial for players who are the type to impact the game on a level such as Campese, Wilkinson or Lomu, little versions of them – diamonds in the rough as it were, coming across to play for the bigger superpowers? Feeder-nations, of sorts. It might mean amending rules, but I doubt it would be an issue. And in turn the blokes who are still guns, but possibly past their usefulness to their home nation, perhaps even playing for big bickies in Japan or Europe, could strengthen these “minnows” as campo has fairly dubbed them.
It’s only a thought. But, let me guess, one you think you might have heard before..?
Yes, that’s right, it’s already in practice.
Yep, you guessed it. New Zealand has been doing it for years with the Pacific Islands. No wonder the New Zealand Rugby Union voted against an amalgamated Pacific Team into the Super Series. Half their pool of talent would be flushed down the Garry-Glitter as it would mean that the game’s infrastructure and wealth would increase in the pacific, and they could possibly be independent of the shaky isles in the future.
Without a Pacific Team, The All Blacks have stayed strong and deep in talent. There is a huge respect for the ‘Blacks across the Pacific, but if there are any disgruntled Tongans, Samoans, Fijians, Cook Islanders or others out there reading this who have the shits that their teams will never be as strong as the World Top Four, thank the Kiwis. The “Manly Warringah Sea-Eagles of Rugby”. I have no doubt a team made up from that pool of immense talent, thrown together the day after tomorrow, on their day could beat anyone in the Super 14, and give a few test teams a good run for their money as well.
Are New Zealand likely to be threatened by their pool opponents Italy, Romania, Portugal, and the Scots..? Not really. Nor are the Cannucks, the Japs, or Tonga really a menace to Australia. The Welsh fancy themselves against The Wallabies at home at the Millennium Stadium, and rightly so, even-though logic would suggest the Aussies will prevail. There are no certainties in sport however, and the Leek-eaters gave the Aussies a good lesson there not so long ago.
Anyone who follow’s Rugby acknowledges the brilliance of the All Blacks in attack, and the depth of their talent and self belief. Perhaps the Australians are really fortunate that we live next door to and therefore have a strong relationship and parallel history with New Zealand because it has taught us to be tough at Rugby and to never take anything for granted.