Has anyone read Mark Keohane's latest coloumn, should provoke a response or
All Blacks take sole ownership of choker tag
Okay, so they have Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu (every
second or third game). They also have an impressive war dance, a jazzed up
version of the haka that still has its theatrical appeal, and their playing
strip is among the most marketable in the professional game.
The All Blacks, though, don't have the aura of yesteryear. The only
tag the current lot carries around is that of choker.
Whenever it has mattered in the past 18 months, the All Blacks have
bottled on the big occasion. They have choked, both as individuals and as a
team. The Bledisloe Cup decider in Sydney, the World Cup semi-final in
London, the 2000 Bledisloe Cup 'final' in Wellington and the possible
Tri-nations decider in Johannesburg.
On each occasion the All Blacks, a corporate giant in the professional
age, have crumbled like a start-up one-man band. John Hart, the soft target
for a baffled New Zealand public, was blamed for the World Cup semi-final
defeat against France.
Hart was the reason the All Blacks folded when the heat was on. Hart's
corporate image was not that of the All Blacks. He had made them soft and
vulnerable. I heard all the theories. The only common denominator was Hart.
Yet, anyone privileged to have been at Twickenham when France
embarrassed the pride of New Zealand knows that it was a lack of heart among
the team and not simply a coach called Hart that attributed to the dramatic
The All Blacks lacked ticker and mental strength to beat the French.
They also did not have it within to rough it out. The French spoke gleefully
of how they looked into the eyes of so many All Blacks and saw fear and
confusion. This was arguably the greatest insult levelled at the 1999 World
A few months earlier we had seen a similar kind of confusion when an
organised and clinical Australian team destroyed the All Blacks by a record
A team, fashionable for the amount of time they spend on the cover of
magazines, did not have the guts or the character to get up for the most
cherished prize (outside of the World Cup). The then captain Taine Randell
spoke of being 'out-passioned' on the day?
If a team can be 'out-passioned' playing in front of 100 000 plus
people and when playing for the biggest trans-Tasman rugby union prize, then
you have to ask serious questions about the make-up of character in the All
On Saturday it was again a case of being 'out-passioned'. Again, look
to those who make up the balance of the side. New age professionals who,
with the exception of Cullen and Umaga, would not have got an invite to an
All Blacks training session a decade ago.
Justin Marshall, quoted in the New Zealand Herald, as saying the team
all felt they would have beaten the Boks by 30 points if they played them
the next day, should be embarrassed about such a comment. Games of
importance have to be won on the day they are played.
I know every All Black felt that had they played the Boks on the
following day in 1995 they would have won the World Cup. They did not.
And when given the easiest run-in to redeem themselves four years
later, the All Blacks choked in an even bigger way.
The All Blacks used to pride themselves on an ability to win away from
home. It was what separated them from every other team.
This is now gone. The All Blacks, in London, Sydney and Twickenham,
looked as average as Scotland on tour. Actually, that is being harsh to
Scotland, who never lack for heart.
When I was in New Zealand recently with the Boks, New Zealanders
seemed to have forgotten the diabolical exit from the World Cup. They were
patronising about the state of Springbok rugby.
Victories against a shocking Tonga and an average Scotland, combined
with an upset win in Sydney and a lethargic one against a Bok team coming to
terms with a new game plan, apparently heralded the coming of a new All
Nothing could be further from the truth. The class of 2000 are every
bit the pretenders that went to the World Cup in 1999.
What is different to this team than last year's? Not much. The front
row is overrated, the second row is not good enough and while Josh Kronfeld
may be past it, Taine Randell is showing more an more that he may never have
Ron Cribb, at No 8, has all the talent. It is questionable whether he
has the maturity or mind to realise his potential. A bite, a punch, a kick .
they come with the Cribb package and a television camera could end his
career before teams have to worry about it. Cribb has it all . or does he?
At halfback, Justin Marshall still plays too many bad ones to convince
me he is back to the player who claimed the mantle of world's best in 1996
and Andrew Mehrtens, for all his tactical know-how, is a defensive
Alama Ieremia is the best of New Zealand's midfielders but he
continues to struggle because of a lack of quality partner. Umaga and Cullen
are lethal and Lomu, when he decides to get involved, is a unique specimen.
So what has changed from last year? A lot less aura and a lot more
vulnerability, that's what.
Sydney, Twickenham and Johannesburg . not one-off flukes but
confirmation that the All Blacks of today are as fragile as every team they
have buried in their rich tradition.
What makes it worse for the All Blacks is that the public knows it,
the opposition is equally aware of it and the All Blacks, themselves, know
(deep down) that they haven't got it.
It is why they take cover behind playing matches the next day. The All
Blacks are in denial. It is why they believe they can beat a team by 30
points when they know the game won't be played.
As a unit they still have the arrogance of the world's best when off
the field. On it, they are more a take off of the school bully who always
gets pumped the moment someone as big (if not as talented) stands up to him.
New Zealanders can lull themselves with the pretence that they still
set the standards in world rugby. It will have been 16 years since NZ won
the World Cup come 2003 - and the only standard the All Blacks are setting
is in how to ***on the big occasion.
Currently, it is played three and won three in the World ***
Championships . four if you add the 1995 World Cup final.
by Mark Keohane in Cape Town
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