Category Archives: World Cup

All Blacks keep their calm – and the World Cup

In the end, just the points that Dan Carter scored off his boot would have sufficed for New Zealand to beat Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup. The final scoreline was 34-17 and Carter got 19 of those 34 points.

One of the truly great standoffs world rugby has seen, Carter only missed one kick on the night; he converted four penalties, kicked a drop-goal and converted two of the three tries that the All Blacks scored. It was a truly mature performance, with the No 10 kicking astutely, defending with great courage and never panicking when it looked like Australia were getting close to levelling the scores. (He has played better games; for instance, in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2005, he scored more than 30 points as New Zealand won 48-18.)

The period when Australia came close lasted eight minutes; from 21-3, Australia pulled back to 21-17, scoring two tries while All Blacks fullback Ben Smith was in the bin for upending Australian winger Drew Mitchell. But Carter kicked a drop-goal in the 70th minute to push the lead out to a converted try. Two minutes later he followed it up with a penalty, to make the margin 10 points.

At that point, New Zealand knew they were safe. Scoring once in the last eight minutes is not rare. But twice, against a team of the All Blacks’ calibre – well, that is something else again.

Some things became apparent during the final and the tournament overall:

Top pros can let the nerves take over

Ben Smith, normally a man with great presence of mind, had two moments in the final he would like to forget. One was early in the first half when, with his team ahead 3-0, he fumbled a ball just outside his own 22 and knocked on. Australia got a penalty from the resultant scrum and levelled the scores.

Then, early in the second half, Smith had a brain-fade when Drew Mitchell hove dangerously close to the line and lifted the winger’s legs well above the horizontal while making a tackle. The effect of the tackle was mitigated to some extent because the two were not alone; there were a couple of players who made the impact less.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen then decided to move Smith to the wing and brought in Beauden Barrett to man the last line of defence. Smith played much better after he returned from the sin-bin, and created New Zealand’s last try, collecting the ball when Mitchell knocked on close to the All Blacks line and punting it ahead for Barrett to chase and touch down.

Nigel Owens is not the best referee in the world

Ahead of the final, there was a story in the media that New Zealand tended to be victorious against Australia in Tests when Owens was officiating. The Welshman may have had this at the back of his mind for there were several decisions against Australia which were very soft. Australian prop Sekope Kepu made a late tackle on Carter without bothering to use his arms; it was just a shoulder charge. Owens awarded only a penalty. Kepu then got Carter in a high tackle, and with this being a second offence, should have been sent off the field. But Owens again awarded a penalty. Kepu indulged himself with two more high tackles against other players, but neither Owens nor the television match official were paying attention. Owens also missed a high tackle made by Jerome Kaino on David Pocock.

Wayne Barnes does not know how to tell a forward pass

In the 2007 tournament, the Englishman awarded France a try against New Zealand from a blatant forward pass, not even bothering to check with the linesman. New Zealand lost that game by two points. This time, Barnes was mercifully not the referee, he was one of the linesmen. But when he was called upon by Owens to judge whether a pass from All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder to Kaino on the wing was forward — even a blind man would have noticed that it was indeed miles forward — he said that the pass was fine. Moments after Kaino collected the ball and got involved in a ruck, New Zealand were awarded a penalty that Carter put through to increase their lead to 9-6.

Fully fit players must play in big games

Israel Folau was a pale shadow of his normal self at fullback. It was obvious that he was functioning at less than 50 per cent due to an ankle problem. Yet Australia’s replacements are not of the best quality, so he had to play. Unlike New Zealand, the subs in Australia’s squad are not as good as the first 15.

New Zealand’s depth of talent is truly remarkable

Which other country can bring people like Sonny Bill Williams and Barrett off the bench? Williams makes the most incredible offloads and Barrett, though a new addition to the team, has talent to burn. The country has just a tad over four million people but the rugby assembly line does not look like it will dry up anytime soon. That was evident during the last World Cup when Carter was ruled out due to injury; his spot was taken by Aaron Cruden. When Cruden twisted his ankle, on came Colin Slade. And when he went down injured, Stephen Donald was called up – and kicked the winning penalty during the final.

Australia does not even have one decent rugby commentator

Some guy named Gordon Bray — very apt surname, that — has been the commentator for donkey’s years. He is truly awful. The ex-players who join him at the mike are even worse. New Zealand’s Grant Nisbett, in sharp contrast, is a class act.

Australia can surprise the Kiwis in the final

It is doubtful whether many people expected Australia to lose to Argentina in the second semi-final of the Rugby World Cup. There was a period last year when this could have happened, a time when the Wallabies were being described as the Wobblies, but under the new coach, Michael Cheika, things seem to have changed.

But the scoreline — 29-15 — flattered Australia. The last try that blew out the score came off a forward pass from Drew Mitchell to Adam Ashley-Cooper, a pass that went unnoticed by referee Wayne Barnes. But that is not surprising because Barnes does not seem to know how to spot a forward pass. He has form in this regard.

Until that try, Argentina was within touching distance and only needed a converted try to level the scores. That they failed to score a try was due to their lack of experience; the line breaks came with regularity but whoever did so tended to hang on to the ball too long and ended up losing possession. This happened no matter whether there was support or not.

The holes that appeared in Australia’s back-line should be a cause for worry but they appear to have been glossed over by the media in the euphoria over Australia’s win. There appears to be miscommunication between centres Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani and that, in the main, appears to be causing huge gaps to often open up. That is not surprising for the pair only came together for the World Cup; contrast that with New Zealand’s centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith who have played 57 Tests together.

The match against Argentina also showed how dependent the team is on David Pocock, a forward who is excellent at forcing turnovers, disturbing opposing forwards, and acting as a disrupting force par excellence. He was bloodied a great deal during the semi-final, but it is not too much to expect that no matter what his condition, he will be there at No 8 next week.

Israel Folau played only to about 30 per cent of his capacity, and there will no doubt be those who advocate that Kurtley Beale replace him for the final. But playing Beale is a big gamble as he tends to do stupid things at time, much in the same way that Quade Cooper does. Folau, even at that reduced level, is a whole lot safer than Beale.

There is no certainty about the final. New Zealand can play well one day and collapse altogether the next. Over the last 20 years, I have seen the best and worst of the All Blacks and it remains to be seen which team turns up for the final. There is plenty of additional motivation to win for a number of players are playing their last games for the team — Richie McCaw, Nonu, Smith, Jerome Kaino and Keven Mealamu will all leave after this game — and their teammates would love to give them a nice leaving gift.

But Australia is a talented outfit and they always raise their game a notch against their traditional enemies. I would not be surprised if Australia squeaked through due to an error or two by an over-confident All Blacks team.

All Blacks fans, don’t forget what happened in 2003

No doubt, all New Zealand rugby supporters are over the moon with the way their team entered the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup, transforming themselves at one stroke from favourites to red-hot raging favourites.

Many people are, however, forgetting ahead of the semi-final clash against South Africa that this is not the first time New Zealand have been in this position. Hark back to 2003 and an eerily similar situation presents itself.

That year, after a long hiatus, New Zealand regained the Bledisloe Cup from Australia. The team had a new coach, John Mitchell, who, after seeing the success of the Auckland Blues in the Super Rugby competition, decided to structure the national team around four players who won the title for the Blues.

Mitchell could claim to be justified in his plans because the four — wingers Joe Rokocoko and Doug Howlett, stand-off Carlos Spencer and fullback Mils Muliaina — were all highly talented and versatile. The Blues played a style of fast, open rugby, running up big scores, and Mitchell wanted the same style for the national team.

Spencer had been part of the national team earlier, when he took over from an injured Andrew Mehrtens in 1996-97, but then was dumped when Mehrtens recovered. The years from 1998 to 2002 were bad years for New Zealand, when they failed to win the Tri Nations on many occasions and also were eliminated from the 1999 World Cup in the semi-finals by a rampant France.

It did not matter to Mitchell that to implement this plan, he had to get rid of Christian Cullen, arguably the most talented rugby player New Zealand has produced apart from Jonah Lomu. And it did not matter that the key man in his plans, Spencer, was something akin to the little girl with a little curl down the middle of her forehead: when Spencer was good, he was very, very good. But when he was bad, well, he made horrible blunders.

Mitchell’s methods worked in the international fixtures before the World Cup; the All Blacks defeated both Australia and South Africa with ease and came to the September World Cup as overwhelming favourites.

They won their group matches by lopsided margins, with the one downside being a tournament-ending injury to Tana Umaga. Mitchell promptly decided that Leon MacDonald — who, at that time, was seen as some kind of talisman by the team management even though his regular role was substitute fullback — would play in Umaga’s place.

It all seemed to work; MacDonald even scored a try after a piece of Spencer magic in the quarter-final against the Springboks. Ironically, sitting on the bench in those games was Daniel Carter who had just made his debut in the first Test of that season and would surely have been a much better bet at centre.

In fact, things had gone so well in the World Cup that the well-known former All Blacks winger Stu Wilson made a bold prediction: the All Blacks would not be beaten by Australia in the semi-final and would progress to the final.

But we all know how that worked out: early in the game, with play fairly close to Australia’s line, Spencer threw one of his trademark cut-out passes to Rokocoko which, had it reached the Fijian winger, would have seen him make his way to the line with ease.

The ball was intercepted by Stirling Mortlock who then ran nearly 90 metres to score, something from which the All Blacks never recovered. The next morning, the New Zealand papers were full of big pictures of Spencer sitting on the ground with his head in his hands.

True, New Zealand have learned much from that tournament and also the 2007 loss to France (though the latter was in part due to inept officiating by referee Wayne “forward pass” Barnes). South Africa play a crash-bash game, attempting to move up in drips and drabs, and then score through penalties. And they had a tough night beating a side like Wales, generally considered a second-string side to the big boys of world rugby.

But one bad move can be decisive and New Zealand supporters would do well to adopt the attitude of the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw who, when asked at the post-match interview about the game that had just gotten over with a 62-13 victory, replied: “All that we have done is to buy ourselves another week here.”

New Zealand finally gets a monkey off its back

THE Shaky Isles have finally got a monkey off their back by winning the rugby world cup title again. They won the first, held in their own country, in 1987, and have been knocked out at various stages of the tournament ever since.

Due to the series of losses, they have been accused of choking. I’m sure it won’t take long for the next diatribe to emerge – that they choke whenever they play in this tournament away from home.

The manner in which New Zealand won was strange; they were defending for a better part of the game and their flair was totally missing. But then they had raised their game to the level of a final the previous week to defeat Australia – whom they overpowered though it was not reflected on the scoreboard – and peaked a week too early. It is generally difficult for a team to lift to that level twice in a single tournament.

Hence, on the day of the final, New Zealand was somewhat listless. The first half of the game saw numerous opportunities come their way but their running game was desultory and the kicking of Piri Weepu inaccurate. As a result of his wayward kicks, they missed out on eight points in that half. The only points came through a try by loosehead prop Tony Woodcock when a gaping gap appeared at lineout time after Jerome Kaino had gone up to receive the throw; Kaino flicked the ball down to Woodcock and he charged through.

Incidentally, Woodcock scored twice in similar fashion in the last game of the Tri Nations in 2008 and Ali Williams did something similar in the first Test of the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

In contrast to New Zealand’s powerful show against Australia in the semi-finals, France had a listless game against Wales in the semi-finals, one they did not deserve to win. They defended for the most part.

The French played a meandering game for the first 40 minutes of the final against the All Blacks but in the second they were transformed and were unlucky not to win the cup in the end.

The All Blacks defended grimly for much of the second 40 minutes and saw very little of French territory. Had they let the French through that chain-gang-like defensive line even once, it would have been all over. Once France scored in the second half, only a point separated the teams – and it would end that way.

But then fate decided it that way. The New Zealand public have gone through a great deal of trauma in the last few months, with an earthquake in Christchurch. Had the All Blacks lost at home, it would have been too cruel a blow to a nation that lives and breathes rugby.

France has now contested three finals and lost all. Australia has been in three finals and won two, New Zealand likewise. England has contested three finals as well, but won only one. South Africa has won both the finals it entered, the first courtesy of a dose of food poisoning which the All Blacks were served the night before the final.

The 2015 cup will be held in England.

Wayne Barnes proves that incompetence will help one make progress

ENGLISHMAN Wayne Barnes has earned a reputation for refereeing bloopers, continuing the trend he set in the World Cup rugby tournament of 2007 when he awarded France a try from a blatant forward pass.

That try helped France to knock out tournament favourites New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Barnes does not appear to have improved much – at the ongoing tournament, which concludes on Sunday, he denied Wales a try conversion when the ball had clearly gone between the uprights. This was in a pool game with South Africa and as Wales lost the game by a point, they certainly had reason to feel cheated.

But Barnes has been rewarded for this blunder by being given the third-placed decider which is being held on Friday (October 21) between Australia and Wales. It looks like the man has a merry gang of backers somewhere in the International Rugby Board.

If one thinks that Barnes only makes occasional errors, think again. On the day of the Australia-New Zealand semi-final, I was trying to kill time in the afternoon in the run-up to the game and suddenly remembered that I had not watched the final Tri-Nations game between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. I sat down to do so.

Coincidentally, the referee happened to be Barnes. After I noticed a couple of refereeing errors, I decided to make some notes. This is some of what I noticed:

  • In the eighth minute, Barnes failed to notice that Australian winger Digby Ioane had gone off his feet in a ruck and was continuing to play the ball.
  • Seven minutes later Barnes asked New Zealand to position themselves for a five-metre scrum when one of their players grounded the ball in his own try-in goal area. It should have been a dropout from the 22-metre line.
  • In the 13th minute, Australian lock Daniel Vickerman played the ball while sprawled on the ground in a ruck. Barnes did not blow his whistle.
  • A minute later, Australian fly-half Quade Cooper took a swing at New Zealand captain Richie McCaw; again Barnes did not notice.
  • In the 17th minute, Australian centre Anthony Faingaa brought off a try-saving tackle from an offside position. Barnes failed to notice.
  • In the 21st minute, an Australian forward deliberately went to ground to prevent the progress of a maul. Barnes? His mind was elsewhere.
  • A minute after half-time, New Zealand lock Ali Williams tripped Adam Ashley-Cooper who appealed to Barnes. The referee refused to get involved.
  • Ten minutes later, Australian captain Jams Horwill grabbed hold of All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu while both were on the ground in a ruck and would not let go. It was clearly visible – but Barnes was of a different opinion.
  • In the 64th minute, three All Blacks forwards were offside when they charged down a kick but Barnes kept his whistle in his pocket.
  • In the 75th minute, Isaia Toeava, who had come on as a substitute for the New Zealanders, pushed the ball back after tacklers had gone right over him. He was on the ground at the time. Barnes did not notice.
  • In the 76th minute, Australian hooker Sai’a Faingaa threw into the lineout – and even a blind man would have seen that the throw was wildly off centre. Not Barnes, though.

It is ages since I covered a game of any sport so I would probably have missed a lot more. But what I have noted should provide an indication of Barnes’ abilities. Australia won this game 25-20 and took the Tri-Nations title as a result. Had someone like Craig Joubert, who has been rightly picked to referee the World Cup final between New Zealand and France on October 23, been officiating, one doubts any of these contraventions of the rules would have escaped him.

But then there is one fundamental difference between Joubert and Barnes – the former is competent, the latter is a mass of incompetence.

Rugby union is still a fringe game, even though 20 nations gather once in four years to play a World Cup. If the IRB wants to encourage more people to come to games, it is surely doing the wrong thing by continuing to use officials like Barnes for high-profile games. People may call the third-place playoff a waste of time – but given that both teams will be smarting at having not made it to the final, it often turns out to be quite entertaining. In 2003, New Zealand, miffed at having lost to Australia in the semis, hammered France 40-14. It was a good game.

Australia and Wales are both proud nations and neither will give each other any quarter in the third-place playoff either. But the game may well degenerate into a farce – remember, one Wayne Barnes is holding the whistle.

Australia should be grateful this was not the final

AUSTRALIA has one reason to be grateful after last night’s humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in the world cup rugby union tournament – this was not the final.

According to the draw, Australia was expected to come through the pool stages on top of its pool. play Wales/Samoa/Fiji in the quarter-finals, England or France in the semi-finals, and meet New Zealand in the final. That would have been a real blockbuster for the organisers given the fact that the tournament is being hosted in New Zealand.

But as we know, things did not run according to this script. Australia was beaten by Ireland and finished second in its pool; this meant a quarter-final against South Africa and a semi-final against New Zealand. It lost the semi-final 6-20 last night. Had this been the final, there would have been calls from Australian sportswriters for somebody’s head; as things stand, there is not much criticism because the same sportswriters had made it look as though Australia had a genuine chance against New Zealand.

There’s one aspect of the two teams which strikes me – Australia plays mostly as individuals while New Zealand plays as a team. This is graphically illustrated by looking at two players – Quade Cooper and Aaron Cruden. For some reason, Cooper decided to start a running battle with the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw some months ago. It developed into physical confrontation at times and Cooper, without realising what he was biting off, kept portraying himself as New Zealand public enemy No 1.

It was a wrong decision. Cooper is an infant in international rugby while McCaw has been around for eight years and is quite easily the best in his position in the world. The New Zealand rugby captain is more important to the 4 million citizens of that country than even their own prime minister; Cooper has no such status or anything even remotely like it in Australia.

Cooper built up a lot of pressure on himself and clearly could not handle it in front of the hostile New Zealand crowds. Every time he made a mistake on the field during the tournament, the crowds cheered. They booed whenever he got the ball. Did anyone in the team advise Cooper against building up this image? Clearly not. The coach or senior players could well have done so. But they left Cooper to his own devices.

Look at the case of Cruden. He has been suddenly thrust onto the international stage; he would have been in Fiji on a holiday had not Daniel Carter been injured. Then Carter’s back-up Colin Slade got injured. And Cruden was suddenly the No 1 fly-half in the country.

It helped no end that there are four others from Cruden’s Super 15 team playing for the All Blacks and all in the backline too. Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane all play for the Wellington Hurricanes where Cruden does the job of fly-half. And they all helped him no end – Weepu took over the duties of kicking which a fly-half normally shoulders, Jane took over the job (along with fullback Israel Dagg) of collecting the aerial balls, and Nonu and Smith did a marvellous job in covering for any lapses in Cruden’s defence. Cruden was targeted by the Australians but it all came to naught. Freed up of all these tasks, Cruden played an excellent game and even kicked a drop-goal, something with New Zealand rarely does. He has grown into a man in one and a half games and credit goes to both him and his teammates.

That comparison shows why New Zealand won and why Australia lost. Cooper kicked the game off and sent the ball out on the full. From that moment, it was clear that he was going to stuff up things repeatedly and that he could not handle the pressure of around 50,000 of the 60,000 crowd being against him. His captain should have spoken to him and tried to soothe him and unruffle his feathers. But James Horwill did nothing of the kind.

Australian coach Robbie Deans was, unfortunately, too proud to call Cooper off and put Berrick Barnes on for the second half. That’s a pity because with a sensible fly-half on the ground, Australia would have benefitted. But it was not to be. There is some background to the promotion of Cooper as the fly-half but Deans apparently has not learned from that experience.

Australia also thought that David Pocock would function as he did in the quarter-final against the Springboks when he got away with a lot due to lax refereeing. But the man who officiated at the semi-final, Craig Joubert, is a top-notch referee and Pocock was pinged repeatedly.

The final is October 23 and New Zealand faces France, the latter being a team that can play to please the purists one day and lose to a rank outsider the next. If the French team that turned up to play England arrives for the final, then New Zealand may well lose. But if the French team that played Wales in the quarter-final plays in the final, then it will be a cakewalk for the home team.

Wales deserved to lose

There were great expectations of Wales after they made it to the World Cup rugby semi-finals and came up against France.

Today they lost a match they should have won. The scoreline was 9-8 in favour of France. And in the process they illustrated one fundamental fact of the knockout stage of the World Cup – you also need some intelligence to win these games.

For all the playmaking it did, Wales should have gone home with a final in the bag, despite playing with 14 players for 62 of the 80 minutes. France did nothing of note, they played a waiting game and made a couple of line breaks.

But they kicked straight on the night despite getting less penalties within range; all three of Morgan Parra’s kicks bisected the uprights.

Wales were down to 14 men in the 18th minute because of their captain’s stupidity. All through the tournament, we’ve heard about what a great leader Sam Warburton is; we never heard that he is short on intelligence.

As bad enough as it was to make a tip tackle on an opposition player – winger Vincent Clerc was the French player who was up-ended – Warburton compounded his offence by carelessly dropping Clerc after he lifted him off the ground. Every high-school rugby player knows that if you lift an opposing player off his feet in the tackle, then it is your responsibility to bring the man safely back to earth.

Had Warburton made even the slightest attempt to cushion the blow for Clerc, referee Alain Rolland would probably have given him a yellow card and he would have been out of the game for 10 minutes. No referee wants to spoil a game. But in the circumstances, Rolland had no option.

Six minutes before this, Wales had lost its tighthead prop Adam Jones, a man of vast experience, due to injury. Then came Warburton’s stupid mistake. It is well to bear in mind that Wales started the game with a disadvantage because of the loss of fly-half Rhys Priestland to injury; in his place, they had to play James Hook, an erratic place-kicker and not the best man to steer a team.

Hook missed two of the three penalties he took and Stephen Jones missed a conversion after scrum-half Mike Phillips had gone over in the 59th minute to score the only try of the game. In the last quarter, fullback Leigh Halfpenny just missed kicking a 50-meter penalty, the ball dipping just before it reached the crossbar.

Even with 14 men, Wales could have pinched it as France played a lacklustre game. But Wales just refused to show any patience, hurrying a couple of drop-kicks – one by Hook, one by his replacement Stephen Jones. And they kept kicking the ball away to the French. This was a game where 14 were attempting to win a game against 15 and they kept gifting possession away. Not the most intelligent tactic to use.

Had Wales shown even a tenth of the patience they showed in the last play of the game – when they went through 26 phases before they lost the ball to France – they would have been home and dry.

But they did not deserve to win. They had it in their hands and threw it away.

The loss of Adam Jones and Warburton told in the lineouts and France’s experienced No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy pinched some half-a-dozen Welsh throws.

That apart, France did nothing of note. They defended well and waited for the 80 minutes to get over. If the French play this way next week they will meet their third defeat in a final – they lost to New Zealand in 1987 and to Australia in 1999 – no matter whom they confront.

Why is Wayne Barnes allowed to referee rugby games?

During the last World Cup rugby tournament in France, Englishman Wayne Barnes ensured that tournament favourites New Zealand would be thrown out at the quarter-final stage by allowing a French try that was scored off a blatant forward pass.

And this wasn’t one of those line-ball decisions – there was a difference of about two metres between the two French players who exchanged the pass.

Now Barnes has done it again, denying Wales a chance of defeating the reigning champions, South Africa, at the 2011 championships.

Wales was denied a converted penalty and the match, a Group D game, was lost by a single point in the end. South Africa came off second best despite the win. (Game highlights here)

Penalties can be subject to video evidence; it all depends on the referee’s decision which is final. Barnes chose not to call in the television match official. He is obviously confident in his own abilities, the mark of many mediocre people.

In a tournament which has seen close matches until now, this would have been the icing on the cake.

Instead, one stupid, incompetent official’s mistake has cost an aspiring team, which played its heart out and deserved to win, a spirit-uplifting victory.

This is especially so in Group D which is the toughest of the four five-nation groups in the tournament. Apart from South Africa and Wales, Fiji and Samoa are also in the group and neither is a pushover.

Referees can spoil a game, no matter what levels of skill the players exhibit. And, horror of horrors, Barnes is down to officiate Wales’ last game on October 2. As this article points out, in the 2007 tournament, Fiji beat Wales 38-34 and kept the Welsh out of the quarter-finals.

Barnes is a terrible advertisement for a game which needs to grow a great deal – it is still only a minor sport. Idiots should not be masqueraded as officials, the sport will suffer.

The International Rugby Board should ensure that Barnes takes no further part in this tournament – that is if they are interested in the growth of the game.

Australia’s tactics for World Cup rugby fraught with danger

AUSTRALIA enters next month’s World Cup rugby union tournament as one of the teams in with a chance – at least, based on the personnel and the strengths of the other teams involved.

But the Australian coach, the New Zealander Robbie Deans, is resorting to a gameplan that has been tried before – when he was the understudy to John Mitchell, the coach for the All Blacks at the 2003 Cup. And Mitchell’s tactics failed that time.

In 2003, the Auckland Blues won the super rugby title. Mitchell based his national team for the cup on four players from the Blues – mercurial stand-off Carlos Spencer, wingers Doug Howlett and Josevata Rokocoko, and full-back Malili Muliaina. Spencer was the dynamo but his spontaneous style of play meant that when he was good, he was very, very good – and when he was bad, the opposition would win. Mitchell went to the extent of getting rid of an All Black legend Christian Cullen to make space for Muliaina.

In the run-up to the 2003 cup, the All Blacks swept all before them. They hammered South Africa 52-16 in the Boks own backyard and humiliated Australia 50-21 in Sydney. The Australians scored a couple of consolation tries towards the end of the game and that scoreline makes them look much better than they deserve to.

Given this buildup, former All Blacks winger Stu Wilson was brave enough to commit himself to print during the 2003 Cup, saying that Australia could not beat New Zealandno matter what they did. The teams met after New Zealand had disposed of South Africa in the quarter-finals, with Spencer pulling off one of his characteristic bits of deception to account for one try via centre Leon MacDonald.

But, alas, in the semi-final, Australia did upset New Zealand. An expansive cut-out pass thrown by Spencer to Rokocoko was intercepted by Australian centre Stirling Mortlock who then sprinted nearly 90 metres to score. This happened early on in the game and New Zealand never recovered.

The pictures in New Zealand papers next day were of Spencer sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, looking miserable. He never played for the All Blacks after that.

Australia has a similar set-up for the upcoming cup, with stand-off Quade Cooper being a clone of Spencer. He has been instrumental in the Queensland Reds winning the super rugby title this year. Cooper has a similar element of surprise to Spencer in his style of play and can often make an opponent look foolish. But when his tactics do not come off – as happened earlier this year when Australia played New Zealand in Auckland – his team runs a poor second.

Deans is gambling on the gains made by the Reds this year to a large extent – he has even appointed the Reds captain, James Horwill, as the national team’s leader, deposing Rocky Elsom who really hasn’t done too much wrong as skipper. It is a big gamble but one guesses that Deans can take it, as Australia’s tactics in the last two Cups have not paid dividends. And Deans has the security of having recently had his contract extended.

Surprisingly, nobody has mentioned this similarity in tactics. Or the fact that it failed in 2003. Oh, well, perhaps people will be wise with hindsight.