With the start of rugby’s Premiership season delayed because of the Rugby World Cup, yesterday I donned my Harlequins onesie in order to watch on television the All Black’s opening match against Argentina at Wembley in front of a new RWC record crowd of 89,000.
The Kiwis duly won the match 26-16 after the Argentinians had put on a marvellous show of taking the action to the reigning world champions. The South Americans’ performance – and indeed those posted by what might be termed ‘the lesser nations’ at this RWC in losing by a variety of margins ranging from close to Grand Canyon-wide – was a reminder that these days international rugby players are professional athletes above all else.
When they make a tackle, unlike my peers and I habitually used to do back in the day, modern players don’t lie on the ground in self-admiration at our achievement before getting up.
They automatically jump up immediately – if not first roll away from the tackle area urgently to avoid being ‘pinged’ for hanging about – and re-join the defensive line.
Why? For the obvious reason that a man on the floor inevitably represents a potential gap in said line and risks giving away points unnecessarily.
Nobody should ever underestimate the Argentinians anyway. They have a long and proud history of rugby-playing – back in 1936, after his famous winning two-try performance in January against the All Blacks at Twickenham, Prince Alexander Obolensky toured as a member of the British Lions tour to the country – and for decades they have supplied mountains of uncompromising prime beef in the form of heavy-duty forwards and exciting backs to elite club sides (and indeed nations) all over the world.
They won two matches in the recent Southern Hemisphere ‘Four Nations’ Rugby Championship, including one away against South Africa in Durban on 8th August.
My television view of the impressive scene at Wembley, filled almost to the brim with a colourful and noisy crowd, was enhanced for the anthems and the Haka by switching on my quadraphonic sound system. At least half the Argentinian team were either lips-aquivering and/or blubbing as theirs was played and the subsequent Haka performance was tremendous.
The truth is that, for all their first half difficulties in containing the men in light blue and white hoops, the All Blacks gradually cranked up the power and speed sufficiently to win comfortably in the end. An upset was never really on the cards – however inventive and dynamic the Argentinians became, the men in black were never going to panic. They are past masters at absorbing pressure and turning it back on their opponents.
Two All Blacks received yellow cards – Richie McCaw himself, for only the third time in his illustrious career, and centre Conrad Smith. Both are well on the wrong side of thirty but in the world of New Zealand rugby nobody worries about your age. If you’re still good enough you’re still young enough – mind you, if you ever prove no longer up to it, you soon get told and can expect to get dropped. Yesterday Smith was my man of the match for his all-action shift.
Generally-speaking, like the rest of the non-Kiwi world, I love and respect the All Black heritage and I’ve never met an arrogant New Zealander save in one respect.
Universally, their confidence that the All Blacks will prevail in every rugby contest leads them to some extreme one-eyed spectating and punditry. I find television coverage either from New Zealand, or featuring New Zealand commentators, virtually unwatchable because of its bias. Sometimes this spills over into ungraciousness when the All Black team is under the pump.
The first All Blacks – the famous tourists of 1905/1906 to the UK and elsewhere – lost only one international (0-3 to Wales at Cardiff) and still to this day complain that a perfectly-scored try by centre Bob Deans that would have drawn the game was erroneously disallowed by the referee.
They still hold a grudge against Wayne Barnes for his alleged failure to spot a forward pass in a French move that led to a try and the All Blacks going out at the quarter-final stage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in an 18-20 defeat at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. However New Zealand played poorly that day and had nearly twenty minutes at the end of the match to register one more (winning) score of any kind and failed to manage it despite all efforts.
Furthermore, in the bad old days before 20-camera blanket scrutiny, the All Blacks were not slow to resort to skulduggery to advance their cause. Perhaps the worst example was the 1978 incident when, with Wales leading 12-10 with minutes to go in their match at Cardiff, in a pre-planned move Kiwis Frank Oliver and lock Andy Haden threw themselves out of a line-out as if pushed in what proved a successful attempt persuade the referee to award a penalty. This he did and it was duly converted by Brian McKechnie to win New Zealand the game.
Yesterday McCaw was sin-binned for a trip on an Argentinian forward. It wasn’t a bad one in the scheme of these things – it may even have been an instinctive reaction rather than premeditated – but the cameras caught it and the fourth official radioed referee Wayne Barnes to draw his attention to it. Off went McCaw. Typically he took his medicine with stoicism. Thereafter he received resounding boos from the spectators every time he appeared on the giant television screen in the Stadium but he neither acknowledged the cameras on him nor responded to the booing in any way.
Overnight I read that afterwards the All Blacks head coach Steve Hanson publicly criticised the crowd’s reaction, sarcastically suggesting that he expected no less from English crowds who always take perverse delight in tweaking the tails of great players.
For me, that says more about Steve Hanson and the All Black mentality than it does about English (well, in this case probably mostly Argentinian and Kiwi) crowds.
McCaw had committed a sin meriting a yellow card, end of message.
Crowds throughout history have delighted in teasing or barracking players in every game ever devised. It’s all part and parcel of the world of sport – and, if you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
I’m sure yesterday McCaw didn’t spend his ten minutes on the naughty step seething with resentment at the decision, not least because that would have been a waste of time and energy – whether the decision was right or wrong [in my opinion it was right] was irrelevant: he’d been given a yellow card – that was that – and, being the All Black captain, he was probably spent the ten minutes thinking exclusively about what he was going to do when he got back on the field.
That said, Steve Hanson’s intervention makes my case for me. In the world of the All Blacks, Richie McCaw is a New Zealand national icon and saint and therefore cannot be criticised. Ever. Irrespective of whether he trangresses the laws of rugby (or not) at any time.
Only he isn’t a saint and he can be.