It really is the strangest thing when the most successful team in world sport comes under so much attack, after a few less than stellar performances. It’s stranger still when that team is the All Blacks and those leading the charge to put the boot in are so called All Blacks’ fans.
“The problem with the All Blacks as far as I can tell, is that their peerless success opens them up to all sorts of ludicrous criticism when they lose.”
The All Blacks Northern Tour ended up with three wins and a loss – a scintillating one point victory over England at the home of world rugby, Twickenham – comprehensive wins against Japan and Italy, and a loss to the rampaging Irish at Lansdowne Road. The game against Ireland was a cracker and I doff my cap to the team and the coaching staff – and the incredible result of their first victory at home against the All Blacks in 113 years.
The problem with the All Blacks as far as I can tell, is that their peerless success opens them up to all sorts of ludicrous criticism when they lose. I have spent many years perplexed by this nation’s tall poppy syndrome. The All Blacks usually escape it – except when their results are not as expected. When that happens there is a collective wringing of hands and calls for heads to roll.
Steve Hansen has a 93% win ratio as All Blacks coach. That is simply astonishing. Unfortunately for him, Kiwi rugby fans have become far too used to winning and think that’s the only thing that matters about rugby – or sport in general. It doesn’t. It’s really about how you win and how you lose.
“The 40 years since then have changed the game beyond recognition – it is fully professional – no farmers or teachers play rugby as a sideline to their main profession.”
Like a lot of Kiwis I’ve followed rugby since I was a kid. The first tour I remember is the Lions tour of New Zealand in 1977. The Lions were blessed with a robust forward pack and wily, mercurial backs – Like Andy Irvine and Phil Bennett. The thing I recall is not the 3-1 series victory to the All Blacks but the names of all of the regional teams the Lions played on tour – areas of the country I’d never heard before – Like the King Country and the Manuwatu. As a young Canterbury lad they sounded exotic and far-flung. The Lions played 22 matches against regional teams on that tour and it was an event – a travelling carnival where local teams pitted themselves against the best of the Northern Hemisphere. It was entertaining rugby played in the mud in the afternoon – which looks like a different word now when watched on YouTube.
The 40 years since then have changed the game beyond recognition – it is fully professional – no farmers or teachers play rugby as a sideline to their main profession. The rules are different too – lifting in the lineout is fine, as is passing off the ground. When teams tour here now there is hardly a game against any regional team. Games are played at night, under floodlights – the wind hardly makes a difference, as the stadiums are higher. There are also far more test matches played.
“I’ll admit that winning all the time is actually a little bit boring. I would rather games came down to the wire – rather than the expectation that we win by cricket scores.”
We have won three World Cups, lost more and overcome our greatest foes – England, South Africa, and Australia on a regular basis. In truth the 40 years I’ve followed our national team has been a rollercoaster of elation and disappointment – and a hell of a lot of fun. My point is that I am not a fan because we win so much, I’m a fan because of how we play – how we set the tone for world rugby – how we have evolved a game that started when one bloke ran with the football, rather than kick it, all those years ago,
I’ll admit that winning all the time is actually a little bit boring. I would rather games came down to the wire – rather than the expectation that we win by cricket scores. I was delighted for the Irish claiming a rare, historic victory. It will make the World Cup in Japan next year a scorcher.
“That’s what being a fan is all about – supporting your team, win or lose, through good or bad.”
In truth the best experience I have had as an All Blacks fan was a game we narrowly and cruelly lost against Australia in 1994. The All Blacks fought back after a rousing Australian rampage and then all of the drama unfolded in the closing minutes. Out of nowhere Jeff Wilson beat players and powered toward the try line, propelling himself though space with the inevitable grounding of the ball only seconds away, only for George Gregan to pull off the tackle of a career that spilled the ball from his grasp. Game lost, Bledisloe Cup on its way over the ditch. But what a game and what a moment – one that fans who saw it still talk about today.
That’s what being a fan is all about – supporting your team, win or lose, through good or bad. In football there’s a chant that goes up when a team is losing – ‘you only sing, when you’re winning’. It’s the perfect riposte to the fair-weather fans that only support their team when they are ahead on points. Unfortunately it’s a phenomenon that plagues too many All Blacks fans.
I have the feeling Steve Hansen will call time on his coaching career before the end of the year. He’s got nothing left to prove in the game and his record is fantastic. He’s been blessed with a gifted and dedicated coaching staff that has created a culture, squad and teams that have mainly been unbeatable under his watch. I’m sure the scrutiny from the public and the press has become tiresome too.
When I played club rugby in Christchurch, Hansen was on the senior team and the enduring memory I have of him is the time he spent on the field after practice and the rest of the team had gone home – practicing his kicking game. Punt after punt, seemingly for hours, perfecting the long kicks into corners and into touch. We would run after the balls and kick him back to him. He always thanked us.
He’s done more than enough as a servant of New Zealand rugby to avoid the cheap shots that pundits who have never played the game think they have a right to throw at him.