Grant Harding's Rugby World Cup Blog #14


The late, doyen of sports journalism, Sir Terry McLean, once wrote that being an All Black was no guarantee of sainthood.

TP's point, made nearly 40 years ago, was that not all All Blacks behaved appropriately, all of the time.

It was a rare peek inside the All Black camp, a place which elevated those chosen to a position of importance in society - role model, even demi-god status. In many ways the All Blacks were New Zealand royalty.

Not a lot has changed, as World Cup fever grips the nation. But like today's royalty, the modern All Blacks come under closer scrutiny these days, both on and off the field.

Those who are deemed to have slipped up are quickly found out. Earlier this month, Zac Guildford became one of that group.

As rumours of his excessive drinking following the All Blacks loss to Australia in Brisbane last month spread via social networking, the public relations specialists swung into action.

Guildford would have to man-up, face the media, get it over with and allow the All Blacks Rugby World Cup campaign to move on.

Despite the fact it was a minor breach of team protocol the Magpies star was forced to take his punishment publicly for the greater good.

Now the winger gets his first shot at redemption, having been named this morning in the All Blacks starting XV to take on Canada.

As important as a good performance at Westpac Stadium on Sunday is, more crucial for his long term career is learning from the experience that followed his misdemeanour, which followed a less than satisfactory on-field performance.

This was, after all, not the first time Guildford had annoyed the management.

Indeed rumours about his social failings under the influence have been floating around since his dumping from the All Blacks midway through last year.

Certainly the tragic passing of his father has to be taken in to account, and one can understand the protective instincts of those closest to him.

But excusing his behaviour, and bemoaning his treatment by management does nothing to help him move forward.

While it was tough on a 22-year-old to be outed as he was, it will have shown him the fragility of his place within the All Black framework. A position I am sure he values.

Like it or not he is public property, and well-paid public property at that. And his breach, so close to the World Cup, was his problem - not the team's.

There is a time and a place to cut loose, and that was not the time and the place, according to the team. The All Blacks have always run like a military operation. It is part of the reason they have been so successful. And to be personally successful in that environment requires self-discipline, even if there is now more room for individual expression.

An All Black has to grow up quicker than average New Zealand 20-somethings. That expectation comes with the territory. It's just the way it is.

That said, there are also many who have gone over the top in their criticism, including some in the media who have stated that Guildford was "lucky" to be selected in the first place. They continually trot out the names of Hosea Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu as players more deserving.

That criticism has no basis in fact. Gear's workrate was not at Guildford's level, Sivivatu's pace likewise.

Guildford's all-round performance blew both of those players away during Super Rugby, and he was razor sharp in scoring two tries for the All Blacks against South Africa in Wellington in July.

The only basis for real criticism came after the World Cup squad was selected, when Brisbane proved an unhappy hunting ground in an important match for the second time this year.

On Sunday he has the chance to move forward, doing what he does best. And Guildford, and the other players probably not seen as frontline at the moment, have a duty to the rest of the squad to continue the momentum that has been building since the modest opening against Tonga.

There was a big step forward against Japan, and more improvement against tier one counterpart France. Some of the back play in last Saturday night's match at Eden Park was up with the best I have seen at test level, both in skill and pace.

The revolving door at halfback has swung again to Jimmy Cowan. Likewise Sonny Bill Williams gets his first start since the clash with Tonga, giving Ma'a Nonu a well-earned rest ahead of the knockout stage.

In the absence of Richard Kahui, who has a hamstring strain, and Cory Jane, who is recovering from a head knock, the selectors have moved Magpies fullback and tournament star, Israel Dagg, to the No. 14 jersey.

It will be a highlight for Hawke's Bay fans to view the province's two most exciting talents starting in a test together for the first time. That leaves Isaia Toeava on the bench covering a variety of positions.

It also offers Mils Muliaina his first tournament start at his third World Cup, and 99th test. Valuable game time should injuries or form dictate his selection later on.

The forwards also feature three changes from the France test with the most significant being Kieran Read's much-anticipated return from an ankle injury for his first World Cup game. Victor Vito has obviously been deemed not to have come up to scratch in the No. 8 jersey, and Richie McCaw and Adam Thomson were nothing more than stopgap measures. A fit Read, on the other hand, is world class, and will add another damaging runner to the mix.

The selection of Guildford, Muliaina and Read means that all 30 members of New Zealand's squad will now have played at the World Cup.

Ali Williams goes head to head with Sam Whitelock, and Andrew Hore, who currently appeals as second-string to Keven Mealamu, gets his first start since Tonga.

Mealamu and another first-choice Brad Thorn will be on the bench, as will starting halfback against France, Piri Weepu. And prop Ben Franks retains the bench role ahead of John Afoa.

Another feature is the continued selection of Anthony Boric on the bench, with no specialist loose forward substitute named.

The weather forecast is for 16C, rain at times and brisk northerlies. For Guildford it sounds like perfect weather to blow the cobwebs away, and get his All Black career back on the right track.


- Hawkes Bay Today

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