JON CARDINELLI writes that the All Blacks will beat France and claim that elusive world title if they play their natural game.
Last week’s performance against the Wallabies was a rugby masterclass. The All Blacks defended brilliantly, fielded the high ball well, and through the accurate and often prodigious kicking efforts of Aaron Cruden and Israel Dagg, they won the battle for territory. Success in these areas inhibited and frustrated the Wallabies, but it was the All Blacks’ power and precision on attack that allowed them to build momentum and ultimately a winning score.
Afterwards, Graham Henry and Richie McCaw said they would have to be just as brutal and precise against France in the grand final. The All Blacks have shown themselves more than capable of producing these well-rounded showings consistently. The statistics will reveal that they won the 2010 Tri-Nations by kicking more than any other side in that tournament. They also boasted the best defensive record, and scored the most tries.
What stands in the way of the All Blacks and a second world title is 80 pressure-filled minutes. The hype has been building since the lead up to the tournament, and the same questions have been asked over and over again. Will the All Blacks handle the pressure? There is no rugby reason why they shouldn’t win the trophy, as their record will confirm they’ve been the best team in the world over the last four years. But will the pressure of the occasion force them to play a more conservative game, because the fear of losing is stronger than the desire to win?
In an interview for Business Day Sports Monthly two months ago, former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones told me that the All Blacks are a better side when they express themselves. When they go into their shells and try to play a more tactical game, when they overanalyse and rely too much on a rigid game plan, Jones said that they moved away from their strengths. If they decide to do this on Sunday, it will benefit their opponents.
New Zealand are favourites at the scrum, and while the battle at the collisions should be brutally contested, Richie McCaw will ensure the All Blacks win the breakdowns. This should be enough to supply a strong platform for New Zealand’s halfbacks, who have shown that they have the decision making ability to maximise the advantage either by kicking into space or bringing the big and skillful backs into the game.
It is of course, not as simple as that. ’80 minutes and we’re laughing,’ said one newspaper headline over the weekend, but the truth is the 80 minutes of that semi-final against the Wallabies were anything but comfortable. From a rugby point of view, the All Blacks looked favourites to clinch it when Piri Weepu slotted another penalty early in the second half, and yet there was a strong sense in the crowd that the game wasn’t over until the final whistle. A 14-point gap wasn’t enough to calm the nerves of the long-suffering Kiwis.
There was a collective sigh of relief following the semi-final win, but there are still a lot of nerves in the build up to the grand final. Sitting in the crowd last Sunday, I obtained an idea of how much the World Cup means to this country, but I also got an insight into how that passion and desperation could have an adverse effect on the team.
The All Blacks must stick to what worked for them against France in their Pool A meeting. They must play like they played against Australia, that is, with power and accuracy, and the assurance that they are the best team in the world.
If they slip into a conservative mindset, if their coaches and players adopt a ‘we-must-not-lose’ mentality instead of ”we must win’, they will, as Jones previously suggested, give France a sniff. Forget the failures of 1999, 2003 and 2007. Check that baggage at the door.
While experience will be important in a game as big of this, the confidence of some of their young stars will also provide the necessary boost. Cruden was impressive in last week’s game, and going by what has been said this week, he will continue to play his natural game. Notably, the young flyhalf has the backing of his coaches.
‘It’s really important that you build throughout the week but that you’re not over-thinking about the game,’ Cruden told reporters. ‘You need to find a balance and that is what I will be doing this week.
‘I’d like to think it’s just the beginning of another week, just going through and doing the normal for me, making sure I’m really clear on my role and just building so that when it comes to kick-off time I am ready to go.’
The rest of the All Blacks side would do well to follow suit.