• Don’t Saddle the All Blacks with the Burden of Invincibility

    My first awareness of the All Blacks was as a nine year-old, when Fred Allen’s 1949 team played the Springboks in South Africa, and a combination of home-town referees and a goal-kicking prop called Okey Geffin consigned the All Blacks to a four-nil whitewash.

    I am no stranger, then, to All Black defeats.  Every time the All Blacks take the field, I recognise the possibility that they will lose – and that is how it should be.  Sport is not sport unless there is a genuine contest – and that means that winning should never be a certainty.

    And so it proved in Chicago.  That day had to come.

    Ireland were the better team on the day.  They out-thought, out-passioned and outplayed the All Blacks, who were undone by their perennial tendency to give away penalties and by selection errors – why did the absence of probably the best locking pair in the world mean that we began a match against a top-class opponent without two specialist locks?

    Most of all, they were undone by the excellence of the Irish who thoroughly deserved their win.  I would have put money, with the score at 33-29 in the dying minutes, on the All Blacks scoring the try that would have won the match – but it was Ireland who came up with the decisive score.

    The result has of course produced great celebrations in Ireland and there is no shortage of those beyond Ireland’s shores who have been quick to welcome the All Blacks’ defeat.  The result, they say, is good for world rugby – and they are right – but it may be good for All Black rugby too.

    This is a team that has scaled every summit – a number one world ranking for a record time and by a record margin, two World Cups in succession, an overflowing Trophy cabinet and a world record succession of wins (yes, I know about Cyprus).  It is that latter distinction which, I believe has become not just a distraction but a burden as well.

    The All Blacks have been, for virtually the whole of my life, not only the world’s pre-eminent rugby team – some would now say the pre-eminent international team in any sport.  But the possibility of defeat has always been there; it is that which adds lustre to their achievements and spice to every encounter.

    For years, though, they were said to carry a monkey on their backs – their puzzling failure, despite their dominance, to win a World Cup to add to their triumph in the inaugural tournament.  That accursed animal (as well as the ridiculous label of “chokers” foisted on them by their detractors) has been well and truly dislodged by their World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015.  But a new one has appeared.

    The achievement of the world record of successive wins has created a new burden for them to bear.  They are no longer weighed down by the expectation that they will win every World Cup tournament.  But, as they recorded one win after another to achieve the world record, and then set out to extend it, the expectation arose they would go on winning – that they were not just the best but were invincible.

    Invincibility has no place in sport.  There must always be the possibility that competitors could win – or lose.  We must not saddle the All Blacks with that expectation.  Every match is a new challenge.  We must be satisfied that – week in, week out, and for as long as possible – the All Blacks will go on showing that they are the best rug y team on the planet, always seeking to improve, and will therefore go into every match as the team to beat, the team that demands the best from their opponents.

    But that does not, should not, cannot, mean that they must win every match.  The real possibility of defeat in every match they play is what makes the All Blacks great – and no one knows that better than they do.  As they set off for further matches in Italy and France, and a re-match in Dublin, they should be encouraged by our support and by our understanding that being the best is good enough – and an awareness that every victory is a possible loss avoided.

    Bryan Gould

    7 November 2016