How the ball will bounce, Garth Baker

How to Watch the Rugby World Cup 2011
Spiro Zavos
Awa Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781877551093


How timely – a book to help desperate All Black fans get through that most harrowing of experiences, the Rugby World Cup. Despite being the winningest national rugby team ever, the All Blacks have only won the Webb Ellis Cup – the Rugby World Cup trophy – once, a long 24 years ago. While they’ve made it into the final stages of the five other world cup tournaments, and even played into extra time to decide the final match in 1995, the Webb Ellis Cup has become our holy grail – infinitely desirable but ultimately unattainable.

The dissonance of clearly being the best but not being the recognised Rugby World Cup champion for the entire professional period, combined with four-yearly disappointment, not to mention our occasional hubris, has presented the 2011 All Black fan with an unprecedented and  discomforting clash between desire and reality.

The predictable coping mechanisms are adopted – anxious fretting, history-denying optimism, fatalistic searching for omens, selective hearing, engulfing pessimism, surges of blind hope, minimising, private tradeoffs, protective cynicism, feigned indifference and staunch loyalty. And this is all within any hour of any day. Pessimist or optimist, whether the trophy cabinet is half full or half empty, we all have to deal with the fact that it doesn’t contain the one cup we deserve.

It’s like living in some crazy co-dependent relationship with an alcoholic. Most of the time we muddle on, but the World Cup binges are now too destructive. We’re stuck with our team (who else are we going to support? Australia? Yeah, right) but … . We’re a mess and no sports psychologist would ever recommend this as a suitable approach to a big game, or to Life.

I’d hoped How to Watch the Rugby World Cup 2011 would be the self-help book fans needed. Spiro Zavos has always impressed me with his insight and wisdom, and I’d willingly lie on his couch and blub on.

My review copy was clearly aimed at the New Zealand rugby fan, with a dramatic picture of the All Blacks lined up on the cover. I ended up losing this copy and when I bought a replacement in Brisbane, I found that, while the content was the same, the Australian version had a different cover: it has their team, the Wallabies, staunchly lined up.

Clever marketing as this is, it signals a dilemma for the book’s content: how can it help both New Zealand and Australian rugby fans watch this year’s Rugby World Cup when we have very different eyes? How can it cater for All Black fans desperate to break our hoodoo, as well as Wallaby fans whose team could win the damn thing for a record third time?

With its summary of this tournament’s key matches, and interesting new stories about the previous six finals, this book tells us what we will see, rather than advising All Black fans how to look at it all, especially when peeking through our fingers.

The book does remind us that sport is essentially unpredictable. That is its whole point. For all the experts’ column inches, the calm confidence of TV panellists, dogmatic talkback radio rants, zealous smoko arguments, and, as Zavos concedes, experts’ guide books, no one actually knows what is going to happen or how we can ensure victory. Responding to the out-of-control nature of sport (or Life) with strident assertions and simplified action plans is a common Kiwi male pattern. Repeating a well-rehearsed argument, having a persuasive presentation, using facts and figures, or even just shouting other people down, doesn’t make it so. This is sport after all, not politics.

And, unlike the economy or the way politicians present their fiscal management, sport is not a carefully calibrated machine easily controlled by the software. There are the obvious variables of players’ performances and injuries, and the coach’s game plan. And that is just our team: the opposition also has a million ways to stuff it all up. Then there are all the variables the referees throw in. And if that’s not enough, How to Watch also points out a host of other fickle influences on All Black results: will rule changes favour the All Blacks’ style of play? How will the French bogeymen haunt us this time? What will happen in the “Pool of Death”, where three top teams vie for two final spots? What is the volatile equinoctial weather going to do? What advantage have we gained from sticking with the same coaches from the last unsuccessful World Cup campaign? If every successful World Cup team has been won on the back of an extremely successful provincial side, then what does the Crusaders’ heroic but unsuccessful Super 15 campaign mean? How is the ball going to bounce?

Zavos also analyses some common theories about how to win the Rugby World Cup, but he concludes none are definitive enough to guide All Black fans or coaches. Teams with the best defensive record (conceding the least number of points) have won the first four Rugby World Cups but not the last two. The average age of winning teams shows no obvious trend. Ditto for the number of test caps in the team. The winning team’s results over the previous three years are also inconclusive, as is their form in previous Rugby World Cups. Thank heavens, peaking too early proves to be a fallacy: the All Blacks’ sensational form last year isn’t a portent of bad things to come. And having the home-ground advantage is also significant at Rugby World Cups.

Zavos does offer the reassurance that a knockout tournament doesn’t tell us who the best team is; rather it throws up “the best team in the tournament, an entirely different thing”. The first part of the tournament involves 20 teams competing in four pools, all of which feature the strongest teams: the All Blacks, the Wallabies, the Springboks and England. This initial stage gives some interesting match-ups of no importance (Georgia versus Romania in Palmerston North); while stronger teams have “festival” games against much weaker teams, which is poor preparation for their tougher matches.

The second stage of the tournament consists of the top two teams in each pool playing quarter- and semi-final knock-out games, with the last two going on to the final match, and even into extra time if need be, until there is a winner. Basically, to win the Webb Ellis Cup a team needs to be one of the top two teams in their pool and then win three games in a row during the final stage. This takes good playing and flexible game plans, as well as auspicious referee decisions, favourable results in other parts of the competition and a stadium of good luck. Great as they are, this is beyond even the All Blacks’ control.

Much to the fans’ chagrin, it is the winning of all three final games that has proven the All Blacks’ undoing at previous Rugby World Cups. More used to longer campaigns, the All Blacks haven’t adjusted well enough to the no-second-chances requirements of knock-out games. They have also been hurt by bad luck and dodgy refereeing at this crucial stage of the tournament, as well as being undermined by backroom political shenanigans, skewed scheduling and, in one memorable instance, food poisoning. It’s all in the book.

One of the key premises of How to Watch is that a winning team needs to gain momentum through the entire tournament, getting stronger and more confident until peaking at the final game. The All Blacks will need the support from unequivocal fans to do this.

As sport is the volatile meeting of many disparate factors, it can’t be inherently fair. Just because the All Blacks should win the Rugby World Cup doesn’t mean we will. But it doesn’t mean we will lose it either. Sport always offers another chance, with redemption only the next game away.  Zavos, bless him, predicts that the All Blacks will go to the final match.

Take a deep breath … .


Garth Baker is an anxious All Black fan who is not quite ready for the Rugby World Cup.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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