• The World’s Best

    We know that the All Blacks have again struck top form when overseas rugby writers start to talk about “peaking too soon” and to mutter darkly about “choking” at World Cup time. It is almost as though they need to comfort themselves with the thought that, despite the evidence of their own eyes, the All Blacks cannot be as pre-eminent as their results and the manner of achieving them show that they are.

    The comfort is of course illusory and the criticism is fatuous. The “choker” label is an undeserved slur. The All Blacks win a higher proportion of their international matches than any other international team in any sport, and they accordingly bear a heavier weight of expectation than anyone else, but even they win just three out of every four matches. On any given day, there are at least three or four teams who could beat the All Blacks. In any World Cup tournament therefore, the odds must be against the All Blacks (and even more in the case of other teams) winning seven matches in a row – and the nature of the competition is such that one loss in the latter stages is enough.

    While the disappointments of successive World Cup campaigns are real enough, they reflect the capricious and unpredictable nature of a knock-out event rather than any mental frailty on the part of the All Blacks. This is, after all, a team that isn’t content to focus on one tournament every four years but is ready to defend its superb, century-long record every time it steps on the field. That record is not maintained and enhanced by a team of chokers, as we see again from the triumphs of the past two weeks.

    But it is not just overseas that the All Blacks are at times written down. Even at home, it is apparently fashionable to suggest that the New Zealand public’s support for rugby and the All Blacks is not what it was, while other sports and other successes are lauded. It is almost as though the All Blacks’ amazing record has become old hat for media that are hungry for novelty.

    Unscientific opinion polls are produced to show that “only” two-thirds of Kiwis support the All Blacks and – shock horror – one in ten “hate” rugby. It seems not to be realised that such a result, even if accurate, would demonstrate the centrality of rugby in New Zealand life, rather than the reverse. No one would “hate” a sport that mattered little or that made no impact.

    But, as it happens, we have had the chance over recent weeks to make a fresh assessment of the merits of rugby and of our number-one world-rated team. The Football World Cup in South Africa has been followed by the opening matches of rugby’s Tri Nations – and we don’t need to belittle the skill required for football and the spirit shown by the All Whites to conclude that the two recent rugby tests have shown us an altogether superior spectacle.

    Television coverage of the World Cup revealed that football is a game in which it is relatively hard to score, the ball gets moved up and down the field for long periods while little happens, the chances of a draw are very high and teams are often tempted to play for that inherently unsatisfactory result, and goals often come out of the blue with little build-up to stir the blood. The appeal of football as a spectator sport depends greatly on the atmosphere created and passion shown at big matches by supporters who flock to the grounds and who largely entertain themselves.

    Rugby at its best (and I mean union rather than league – union is a more varied, complex, demanding and therefore interesting proposition than that offered by the staccato and relatively simple rhythms of league) provides by contrast a stirring contest requiring not just the skilled feet or head of the individual footballer, but the collective skills, speed, strength and courage of the whole athlete, and the whole team. A rugby try almost invariably comes as the culmination of a passage of play that raises excitement and heightens expectation. There is little in sport to compare with the speeding winger heading for the corner, or the interplay and sleight of hand of a smoothly functioning back line, or the expenditure of every last ounce of effort and resolve as a forward pack masses to drive across the line.

    And we in New Zealand have an added bonus when we watch a top rugby match. No other team in world rugby can match the pace, power, precision and sheer elan shown by the All Blacks as they once again emerged victorious from renewed clashes with their greatest rivals. Surely we should savour and celebrate as we watch the world’s best in the knowledge that it is our team – our All Blacks – that have again maintained their century-old pre-eminence?

    Bryan Gould

    19 July 2010