The bloody World Cup, John Saker 

Inside The Cup: Secrets Behind Our All Black Campaigns
Phil Gifford
Penguin Books, $40.00
ISBN 9780143573463

The next, as yet unwritten, chapter of this book has just been played out with the All Blacks’ ruthless, successful march through this year’s Rugby World Cup.

The bloody World Cup. That we weren’t able to win the thing more often over a 20-year period became a source of national angst. With Inside The Cup, Phil Gifford takes us through each painful derailment (and, of course, the two successful campaigns in 1987 and 2011). Before we get into that, here’s my own theory.

The Rugby World Cup is a tournament, as opposed to a league. Unlike many other team sports (eg hockey, basketball) for which tournaments are regular fare, the World Cup is the only tournament the All Blacks ever play, so they (and, yes, their opponents) are unfamiliar with the format. Tournaments are the most concentrated of all sports competitions. The idea is to gather in one locale and find a winner in as short a timeframe as possible, so Aristotle’s unities apply. Unlike a league, which meanders through a season with its home and away ups and downs, a tournament hurtles, brutally, towards its conclusion. The fact that I keep seeing many rugby writers call the Super 15 league a “tournament” in their copy, suggests that some rugby folk aren’t fully aware of the differences between the styles of competition.

Every team improves in the course of a tournament. The trick is to have a steeper growth curve than other teams, to have become an ascendant, irresistible combination by the knockout phase.

In this way, a tournament resembles one long continuous game and it should be treated as such. Pre-event preparation becomes all-important. And just as a game requires undivided focus from go to whoa, so does a tournament. When you’re not playing you’re watching other games, doing team things, submitting to, and feeding off, the spell the tournament itself weaves around its participants. You certainly don’t leave the Big Top, as the All Blacks did in 1999. That year it was coach John Hart’s bright idea to quit the host nation (Blighty) for the south of France before the quarter-final. In Inside The Cup, Gifford opines that the chief downside of this move was to tarnish the image of the All Blacks. I saw it then (and still do) as far more damaging: a team collectively tuning out and then finding it very difficult to tune back in.

Another thing about tournaments is the tendency for semi-finals to come over all weird (to use a favourite adjective of Gifford’s). It doesn’t matter what sport it is, semis are prone to volatility, and are thus fertile ground for upsets. This often makes them better spectacles than finals, which tend to be more settled and to follow the form. My hunch is that this has a lot to do with favourites falling into the trap of looking past the semi. The underdogs, on the other hand, are usually over the moon to be where they are, and as such in a perfect frame of mind to create merry hell. Going into a semi, combating complacency is a key task for the coach of the favourites. That the All Blacks have been semi-detached at three World Cups (1991, 1999 and 2003) suggests a failing in this area. A notable exception was in South Africa in 1995. The day before that semi-final, Gifford tells, us coach Laurie Mains launched a verbal assault on the team. In Mains’s view, “they’re too loose, they don’t have the focus they need. He walks to the door, snarls, ‘Now you guys sort it out yourself.’ The door slams behind him.” The next day the All Blacks trounced England 45-29 in a commanding performance.

This year, you couldn’t fault the way Steve Hansen’s team rode the six-week wave. There were no false steps. You could even sense Hansen himself evolving, basking in a self-realisation journey of his own. Suggested heading for that unwritten 2015 chapter: “How The All Blacks Rediscovered What It Takes To Win A Tournament”.

Gifford’s prose is engaging. I like the use of the present tense throughout, which gives Inside The Cup an immediate, almost cinematic quality. Well-stocked with wry humour and strong storytelling, what comes through is a fondness for people as much as for the game.

I’ve long been an admirer of Gifford’s ability to mine telling insider quotations and insights, going back to his days as sports columnist for The New Zealand Listener in the 1980s. True to its subtitle, Inside The Cup offers a rich bounty of fresh material in this vein. One is the difficulty Hart had in finding a captain for his 1999 side. He was turned down by the likes of Jeff Wilson and Anton Oliver. Hart’s fourth choice, 23-year-old Taine Randell, had to be coerced into taking the job. He wasn’t ready for it, nor did he receive the necessary support and advice. I vividly recall him making ridiculous appearances on TV every night, fronting a sponsor’s ad. Why didn’t somebody step in and say All Black captains don’t dress up in public as bellboys? Another is the ructions caused by the booze culture and lack of discipline that set in during John Mitchell’s tenure as coach. It upset manager Andrew Martin, who became surplus to requirements after a year of working with Mitchell. The issue was also serious enough for team doctor John Mayhew to suggest that players be breath-tested on Sunday mornings.

Gifford brings us no closer to knowing whether or not Suzy the waitress poisoned our lads in South Africa in ’95. He does quiz each of the All Blacks who played in that final. Most say they fell ill; the chicken at the team buffet is brought up several times (so to speak) as the likely source; asked about the cause, the overwhelming response is “don’t know”. Only halfback Graeme Bachop feels that skulduggery was at play: “It happened so quickly, to so many, I think it was deliberate.”

If Suzy is only a maybe villain, so is Wayne Barnes. Yes, the English ref missed that forward pass at the Cardiff quarter-final in 2007, for which he was tarred and feathered in absentia in this country. But Gifford makes it plain that the real problems that year were self-inflicted – the conditioning programme that both ruined the Super Rugby season and left the All Blacks ill-prepared, and a player rotation policy that saw very different teams take the field right up until that calamitous quarter-final. In fact, most of the villains in this story come from within. The absurd decision by the New Zealand Rugby Union board to make two men who loathed each other – Grizz Wyllie and Hart – co-coaches in 1991 has to be the inside job to beat them all.

Hart comes across in the book as a figure New Zealand rugby could have done without. A divisive force in the wider rugby community, he ultimately lost the All Blacks dressing room as well. All Black lock Ian Jones tells Gifford that the more Hart’s team talks increased in length over the years (sometimes stretching to 90 minutes), the more they lost their power to motivate.

The 2011 triumph at Auckland provides Gifford with the perfect bookend. A one-point, near-run thing it was, but enough to silence the maddening echo of Wallaby George Gregan’s taunt: “Four more years”. Although, today, that phrase has quite a different ring to it.

John Saker is a Wellington writer.

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