New Zealand's rugby problem

October 9, 2007

Nearly three days after the event, the sense of sadness that envelops the shaky isles is unlikely to have lifted. The whole country had invested such a lot of emotion in the world cup rugby tournament that the sudden eviction of its team at the quarter-final stage is still causing grief. And that grief is likely to take a more tangible shape on the morrow when most of the team returns from Cardiff where they lost to France 18-20.

The eviction itself is nothing new - despite its overwhelming superiority over practically every team between the world cups, New Zealand has not managed to win the tournament after the inaugural championship in 1987. And only once after that has the team entered the final - in 1995. Thrice they have been ejected in the semi-finals and this time they went one better and made their exit a stage before that.

This time, the ejection will hurt all the more given the way the country had been revved up to focus on the tournament. Twenty-two players, who were certain to be part of the squad of 30, were pulled out of the Super 14 (which is contested by clubs from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) and literally kept in cotton wool. Given that other countries which toured New Zealand were reluctant to field their top teams as they wanted to protect top players from injury and a similar situation obtained in the TriNations tournament which came up just before the World Cup - plus also the fact that New Zealand had an easy pool at the world cup - the All Blacks went into the knockout phase of the world cup having played little or no hard rugby for the entire year. And it showed. They had all supposedly been in a conditioning camp to build stamina - yet at the end of the game, the French team, despite making nearly three times the number of tackles, appeared to have more energy in their legs than these super athletes from the shaky isles.

While the All Blacks were winning Test after Test under Graham Henry's stewardship, nobody raised a single question about the coach. But there was plenty to question and it is only now that people are asking questions. His team selection for the game against France was peculiar to say the least: Doug Howlett, easily the best of the three specialist wingers in pool play, was left out and an out-of-sorts Sitiveni Sivivatu preferred instead. Howlett was not even on the bench. A clearly unfit Daniel Carter was picked instead of the man who is supposed to be his understudy, Nick Evans. In truth, there is no second stand-off in the squad - Evans just happens to be able to play in the position.

Keith Robinson was picked at lock even though he had had little match play - while Chris Jack, fully fit, was kept on the bench.

There's an old saying that class is permanent while form is temporary; add to that the fact that experience is vital in knockout contests of this nature. Yet Henry preferred the newcomer Luke McAlister to the seasoned Aaron Mauger at centre. And at inside centre we once again had a specialist full-back, in fact the best full-back in the squad, Malili Muliaina.

This business about the inside centre is amazing - ever since Tana Umaga retired at the end of 2005, nearly every second rugby player in New Zealand has been tried out at the position. Yet nobody has been given the berth for anything more than a match or two. New Zealand lost one world cup semi-final due to an inexperienced inside centre - Leon MacDonald - after Umaga was injured in a pool game. It lost one semi-final in 1999 due to the same reason - Christian Cullen was moved from fullback to inside centre so that he, Jeff Wilson, Jonah Lomu and Umaga (who was playing on the wing at that time) could all be included in the team.

Graham Henry has had four years with the team and driven people to distraction with his rotation policy. Yet because the team was winning for the most part, there has not been much complaint. But if his policy was to build depth, then he would have been much better off finding a good backup for each and every position instead of trying to behave like an Indian outsourcing company and asking rugby players to be prepared in play in more than one position. The team was not lacking funds when it came to World Cup preparation - nearly $NZ50 million was spent over the four years with the World Cup as the goal.

Henry will not survive the defeat. No coach has. It is only to be hoped that the next coach will adopt a more commonsense approach for the 2011 cup. There will be much greater scrutiny then for the tournament is scheduled to be played in New Zealand. Maybe the team will surprise one and all - and make its exit in the pool stages itself.