Months ago on this blog (http://sportdivine.blogspot.com/2007_03_01_archive.html) I said, 'From a NZ point of view this will be a huge challenge. To beat Ireland/France then Australia then South Africa/England in successive weeks is a huge challenge! If NZers think they have the cup in the bag, get real; this will be a gigantic challenge and it is anyone's cup!' I also suggested that we would play Ireland but possibly France. Bugger, we played France, and we lost.
So what went wrong.
1. Rotation, Reconditioning is retro! These ideas have some merit but the truth is that the AB coaching panel failed to prepare the A team in terms of combinations. Neither does reconditioning work, it leave players without enough rugby. While you need fitness and depth, you need a team well prepared with hard rugby. They didn't need the rotation, we have more players in every position than any nation in the world already! They didn't need the reconditioning, they needed to play! They should have played the Super 14, the tests and some of the NPC to be match hard. You could see at the 30 min mark that the AB's intensity began to drop. They never regained it. Shades of Sydney 2003 when the AB's fired nothing.
2. Wrong game plan! What happened. They decided to take it up the guts with one man running. It was clear early on that there was space out wide. When they went 13-0 up they should have continued to run and get Joe R and Sivivatu in the game. Instead they went into trench warfare, the French's own way of playing. Having said that, for all the talk of fitness, they weren't there. They hadn't played enough rugby or enough hard rugby.
3. A team of the wane? The signs were there earlier in the year if we admit it. In 2005-2006 this team peaked thrashing the Lions, a grand slam, Tri Nation titles etc. Most great teams last 3-4 years. I count 2003 as a its first year under Mitchell (apart from the semi) and they have lasted 3 years. The reconditioning and rotation policy was unnecessary and they lost momentum. They did not have the dominance this year in the TriNations or at the Cup. Tragic!
4. The rub of the green! It also was one of the those days. The French got up. The ref went their way, probably unintentionally and pressure from a French-supporting crowd. The sinbinning of McAlistair was simply wrong. He missed the crucial forward pass. The biggest issue remains the two problems that are ruining rugby. He allowed the French to be offside the whole game; and he allowed them at the breakdown to kill the ball. What should have happened was a series of penalties as the AB's pressured the French, yet in the second half we virtually saw none. These would have been converted into 3 points and we would have pulled away. It was one of the those days.
I listened to hours of talkback leading into this and it fulfilled the concerns of a few who realised that while this team is a great team, on any given day in a knock out tournament, with the rub of the green, they could lose. A lot of people were concerned at the preparation of the AB's but this time the public got behind the AB's rather than getting critical before the event. Sadly they are right.
Personally, I do not think they choked, I think they were beaten by a better team and were not prepared properly. I believe this is a great AB team. It is sad that Henry got fancy on it, he had the team, they didn't need to do all the reconditioning, resting and rotation! All he and the team had to do was coach them well, get their combinations strong, play them and let them loose! We have so much depth at home, if we lost a few players through injury leading in, we could bring in the newbies.
Still it is not the end of the world. NZ will win the cup one of these days, they will get it right, they will get the rub of the green, they will win. I still salute Graham Henry as he goes out, he is a great coach. So are Smith and Hanson. But they are all gone now! Welcome Robbie Deans, they are all yours. Bring on 2011.
Finally, let's get over the world cup and enjoy rugby for rugby's sake. Let's see the players play. Let's see the players stop moaning about playing too much and enjoy the privilege of being paid for the thing they love. Let's enjoy the Tri-Nations, tours, Super 14, NPC and see the game sorted out at breakdown and offside line. Let's hope for a win in 2011, but let's not be World Cup obsessed. I say, play hard until then. About 4 weeks out, pick a team for another tournament. Train hard, play hard, be hard, well prepared through playing together week in week out not sitting in the gym, and have another go. As for the exit... bugger.