The All Blacks' knowns and unknowns

by Fiona Rae / 02 April, 2011
The RWC in four parts – No 4: Paul Thomas on what we don't know we don't know.

In February 2002, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld made this fateful statement: “There are known knowns – things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns – that’s to say, things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Opinion was divided over whether Rumsfeld, who’d been asked about the lack of evidence to sustain the charge that Iraq was supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, was spouting mock-profound twaddle or had nailed a philosophical truth. In hindsight it seems he was telling us that the US wasn’t going to let the facts – or lack of them – get in the way of a war. Since more conventional forms of analysis haven’t got us very far, we might as well apply Rumsfeld’s formula to the All Blacks’ prospects at the World Cup. The known knowns are all good.

Form: The All Blacks are clearly the No 1 team in the world, having won 13 out of 14 games in 2010.

Experience: Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones reckons that to win the World Cup your starting XV should boast at least 650 caps. The team that started the last test of the year had 745 caps. If Ali Williams and Sitiveni Sivivatu make successful comebacks, the figure could be close to 900 come the first game of the tournament.

Class: Another ex-Wallabies coach, Bob Dwyer, reckons you need at least six world-class players backed by a similar number of proven international performers to win the World Cup. Not even the most militant pessimist would argue the All Blacks aren’t good enough to win. Lack of talent is not the issue, but then it never has been.

A proven coaching/management team: No other coaching group stacks up against Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, especially if you assume that what didn’t get them sacked in 2007 has made them wiser.

Leadership: Only Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll and South Africa’s John Smit can match Richie McCaw’s leadership credentials.

Home advantage: Strong, settled All Blacks teams rarely lose at home. Last time we hosted the World Cup, no one got within 20 points.

The most obvious of the known unknowns is injuries. We know they are going to occur because they’re a fact of life. As a South African coach put it, “Ballroom dancing is a contact sport; rugby is a collision sport.” What we don’t know is when and to whom. The national obsession with identifying the rightful understudies to McCaw and Dan Carter reached a new level of twitchiness after the champion first-five was subbed off against Australia in Hong Kong and the All Blacks before going to some lengths to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

But Carter and McCaw are the best players in their respective positions that this country has ever produced. It defies belief that the second best-ever first-five and openside flanker are floating around the domestic scene, but the selectors just can’t see them for looking. We have to accept that the back-ups, whoever they are, will be lesser players and hope that cometh the hour, cometh the man. It’s worth remembering the All Blacks achieved their historic 1996 series win in South Africa without the services of Jonah Lomu, who a year earlier had turned much of the game’s conventional wisdom on its head.

It’s worth remembering, too, that injuries happen to others: the Springboks were rudderless in 2010 without injured halfback Fourie du Preez, as critical to their cause as Carter is to ours. Refereeing is another. Eccentricity can be endearing, but seldom in a referee, and Wayne Barnes’s eccentric performance certainly contributed to the All Blacks’ downfall in 2007. Alan Lewis’s performance in the Welsh test last November showed referees are still prone to the strange compulsion to watch one team more closely than the other.

More generally, the concern is that the least accurate referees tend to be the most officious. Rather than adopt the invisible man approach – the mark of a good referee is that you hardly notice him – some officials seem to think the players are there to help them put on a performance, rather than vice versa.

Then there’s the “on-the-day” factor. Although the preparation of sports teams is directed towards producing consistently good performances, the fact remains that humans have good days and bad, especially when they’re competing against other humans. No matter how thorough and scientific the preparation, that will never change.

According to Sean Fitzpatrick, “Attitude is everything. It’s about getting that white-hot attitude and having it explode at the right time.” The trouble is, until the whistle blows even the players don’t know if they’ve got it. Having coached Australia to victory in the 1991 World Cup, Dwyer was in charge again in 1995. By then he was in his 10th year with the Wallabies and by far the most experienced international coach in the game. But even he admitted he wouldn’t know for sure if his players had the requisite hunger and desire until after the event.

“Sometimes it’s the great players who are affected and you have to ask yourself: is it better to have the great player who might have lost that hunger or another player who is hungry and whose attitude will infect others? Either way, the individual’s attitude can infect others.” Hunger shouldn’t be a problem for the All Blacks, whose senior players suffered crushing disappointment in 2007 – and in some cases in 2003. Just as the Webb Ellis Trophy is conspicuous by its absence from the New Zealand Rugby Union’s well-stocked trophy cabinet, winning the World Cup is the only honour that has eluded them.

It may all come down to luck and timing. “You need to be at your best for the key games,” says Dwyer, “and reserve your less-than-best performances for the games when you can get away with being at less than your best.” For the record, Dwyer’s 1995 team lost their opening pool match – to eventual champions South Africa – and were bundled out at quarter-final stage by England.

The nature of the game and the known unknowns factor mean that a team would have to be 5-10% better than the next best to be an absolute sure thing. With that buffer of superiority, they could afford to lose a key player or two to injury, have an off-day against an inspired opponent, and get on the wrong side of the referee. But as the coaches keep reminding us, there’s very little separating the teams at the top level. In six World Cups there has only been one team like that – the All Blacks in 1987, when South Africa didn’t take part and the sleeping giant that was England was still rubbing sleep from its eyes.

Everything we know at this point suggests the All Blacks will win the World Cup. It’s what we don’t know that’s the worry. Whoever said that what we don’t know can’t hurt us wasn’t talking about a World Cup campaign.

Further reading: Part one by Peter FitzSimons; part two by Nick Farr-Jones; and three by David Kirk. All of our RWC coverage here.
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