Don’t call them the All Blacks! They’re just a rugby union team. Call them New Zealand. Sure, they’ve got a cool jersey, but try to remember they’re human: when you prick them, they bleed. I believe they even eat and sleep and – being rugby players – break wind.
Sir Clive Woodward, when he was England coach, outlawed the words All Blacks. Maybe it worked: under his guidance, England put together their longest-ever winning streak over New Zealand.
England certainly won’t lose to New Zealand in these autumn internationals; I can guarantee that. That’s because they have cannily decided not to play them. Nice work, boys.
Wales are the last to take on the boys in black jerseys this autumn, so let’s wish them luck. They’ve only beaten New Zealand three times, the last time in 1953, and since then they have suffered 29 consecutive defeats. Apart from the mystique, New Zealand teams tend to be very good at rugby.
They also have a knack of starting every game in pole position. Stephen Potter, author of The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, would have relished the way this advantage is established. The gear is the start of it. New Zealand began in navy blue in 1884, but opted for entirely black by 1905. It’s a look that has had many imitators, but no one has carried it off as well as New Zealand rugby.
Then there’s the haka. New Zealand are allowed to perform a war dance. This gives them as much of a psychological advantage as the opposition are prepared to yield. Many teams have tried to defuse the tactic; Wales once insisted on performing their national anthem after, rather than before, the haka. Other teams have gone for the Paddington Bear Hard Stare, or turning the back, or ignoring it completely. It has been suggested that England should counter-haka with a Morris dance, but that’s come to nothing because apparently you have to “respect” it.
Such things are just props, though effective ones. The real difficulties begin when they start playing. The fact is New Zealand are expected to win, and that can’t help but affect both teams.
To make things harder for Wales, New Zealand arrived in Europe with a point to prove. The British and Irish Lions failed to roll over in New Zealand last summer, winning once and drawing once to leave the series tied. And the last time New Zealand played before leaving for the northern hemisphere, Australia beat them – admittedly in a dead rubber.
The problem with being unbeatable is that you lose the knack of coping when things turn against you. These problems can affect football teams, such as Real Madrid. It’s not complacency. It’s lack of experience of difficult circumstances. Still, New Zealand don’t often find themselves struggling. Best not put this up on the wall of the Welsh dressing room, but they’ve been number one nation more often than all the others teams in the world put together.
International Rugby Union: Wales v New Zealand is on Saturday at 4.45pm (kick-off 5.15pm) on BBC2, 5pm on 5 Live Sports Extra
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