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.”