Is NZ a no-win-nation?

By Nicola Shepheard, Gregor Paul

It is the All Blacks who do most to bolster the notion of New Zealand as a close-but-no-cigar kind of place. Photo / Getty Images
It is the All Blacks who do most to bolster the notion of New Zealand as a close-but-no-cigar kind of place. Photo / Getty Images

Former England hero Gary Lineker took just one line to summarise precisely what happens at football World Cups. "Two teams play for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."

From an English perspective he was right. The Germans had what England didn't: this functionality under pressure; this enviable ability to win when it really mattered.

So what that they couldn't tell jokes, saw nothing wrong with wearing a bad moustache and too brief swimming trunks: Germany were winners on
the biggest stage.

Rugby World Cups can, perhaps, be just as neatly summarised. Two teams play for 80 minutes and at the end, the All Blacks lose.

Everyone knows the All Blacks lose at World Cups. It has become their thing, to the extent now that even with the theoretical advantage that comes with hosting rights, it's unlikely many New Zealanders really believe the All Blacks will be successful in 2011.

When the All Blacks, the country's global ambassador embodying all the values New Zealanders hold dear, continually implode when the eyes of the world are watching, it hints at there being some kind of fragility in the national psyche.

Has New Zealand become a nation of nice people who not only tolerate failure, but have also learned how to revel in mediocrity? In fact, is it even worse: do New Zealanders see success on the world stage as beyond them, something best left to the Australians with their over-confidence and go-get-them attitude?

Sure, New Zealanders are successful in many fields, but is it only up to a point? Is there some flaw that prevents Kiwis fulfilling their potential?

Sport is one of the easier places to tackle that question. The All Blacks have only one World Cup to their credit, yet have been the undisputed best team in the world since 1987. They have bombed in five other tournaments, visibly disintegrated under pressure and shown themselves to be as robust as pavlova.

Sadder than the actual results has been the way New Zealanders have become conditioned to World Cup failure. Look at the way public reaction has evolved in the wake of World Cup disasters. In 1999, the first true World Cup horror-show where the All Blacks were dumped out by a side they really should have beaten, coach John Hart received death threats. His horse also received death threats and was spat on.

Halfback Justin Marshall came to collect his luggage at Christchurch Airport after the tournament and found the Auckland baggage handlers had scrawled "loser" all over it.

In 2003, the reaction was less hysterical. A vocal body even stood up for coach John Mitchell and called for him to be retained.

Then, in 2007, when the All Blacks suffered their worst campaign, 2000 people turned up at Auckland Airport to welcome them back. They wore black shirts, cheered, hugged their fallen heroes and said well done.

The Silver Ferns have been much the same. In 2002 they wilted in the Commonwealth Games final against Australia, as they did in the 2007 World Championship.

The Warriors – well, best not to go there – they are getting on for 15 years now and we all know, absolutely, they will blow up if they get in sight of winning the title.

The Black Caps support the perception of New Zealand as self-destructors, a country of nearly achievers, of prom queen teases who give the impression they are ready to go all the way on the big night when they are anything but.

As the country's most recognisable brand and after building such a phenomenal legacy, it is the All Blacks who do most to bolster the notion of New Zealand as a close-but-no-cigar kind of place.

Can we extrapolate from our international failings in sport a more general view of New Zealand as a country that will never quite fulfil its potential?

Could we have a fault-line running through our psychological foundation?
The shadow cast by our show-off neighbour is long as Australia parades its Hollywood A-Listers, its two Rugby World Cups, its obscene Olympic medal haul, its mineral deposits and ever-growing economy.

Is New Zealand everything Australia is not? The fair dinkum crowd love a
"weener", celebrate their success and seem to promote a culture that says to its people that it is okay to succeed.

Jamie Ford, a mental toughness coach who has been employed at various
times to harden-up the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby Union, believes that is not the case in New Zealand.

"There's a very concerning, deep level of pessimism that is accidentally
learned, and it's something that can be changed by learning new ways of thinking about the things that happen to us," he says.

"Americans and Australians [businesspeople] say the negativity in New Zealand hits them like a wall and they can't understand it."

A vicious cycle of learned negativity breeding failure – is that what we have built? Or, does New Zealand, in fact, have much to celebrate, but doesn't know where to look?

Renowned art critic Hamish Keith leans towards the latter. He sees the media as a driver of pessimism by failing to highlight where Kiwis are succeeding. He is amazed that an All Black can sign for a French club and have every detail reported, while a Kiwi cinematographer could work on major movies around the world and not have audiences in New Zealand recognise their name when it comes up in the credits.

"The reason we think we don't do well is we don't look at things we do do well, and then we're astonished to find that people all over the world are doing things that are quite remarkable and at the cutting edge."

It is tempting to believe he is right; to do a mental trawl of the arts and entertainment scene and start rattling off the success stories. There is Sam Neill, Peter Jackson and Russell Crowe who make the Hollywood A-List. Kerri Hulme and Lloyd Jones are well known names in most English-speaking literary circles, and Crowded House and Bic Runga sell albums worldwide. Flight of the Conchords are big in the US and Britain and Rhys Darby is growing in fame. Surely that's more than respectable for a nation of four million people?

John Reynolds, a successful New Zealand artist in his 50s, who recently showed in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, thinks so.

"Australians can't understand how this country makes so many good artists. Most of the people I meet in the music world, visual artists, writers, I don't get a sense that they feel hindered by being here or that they're in the wrong place," he says.

"New Zealanders travel well: we have a strong sense that we can do what we like, we feel our own individual potential has every opportunity flourish. We don't present ourselves like Australians or Americans offshore. We don't tend to have that sense of entitlement.

"There is a kind of a shaky isles sense to our culture, and that gives us a certain sensitivity – some people might call it anxiety, some people
might call it nervousness. That can be misread by other cultures: often they think we're unsure of ourselves when all we really are doing is taking a good look at things."

Should we then cast off these feelings of insecurity about underachievement and celebrate our successes?

Well, probably not. The confidence seeps when you run the same mental trawl through Australia. With five times the population, they produce considerably more than five times the volume of global talent.

Take the Oscars. They have had 36 different actors and directors nominated over the years. New Zealand just three. Look at the number
of Australian bands that have made it big – INXS, AC/DC, Midnight Oil, Kylie Minogue, Men at Work and Jimmy Barnes for starters.

Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Kate Grenville and Thomas Keneally are but a few of Australia's writers who command global sales.

Then there those such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, who have flown Australia's cultural flag. Let's face it, Australia does better – and while we are being honest, isn't it true that neither Crowded House nor Russell Crowe have gone out of their way to correct the impression held by the rest of the world that they are Australian?

Australia obviously benefits from having a larger population, creating a more diverse economy that acts as the bedrock of much of their success. They win more Olympic medals partly because they can throw more money
at their athletes, and that rings true for every other field.

Beyond transtasman rivalry, there are other examples of New Zealand choking on the world stage. Political bungling saw Mike Moore snatching
defeat from the jaws of victory in 1999 in the battle for the job as
Director General of the World Trade Organisation. Initially seen as a surefire winner, Moore was eventually forced to job-share with challenger
Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand.

Neither is the New Zealand economy as powerful as it could be. A new government taskforce, led by former National leader Don Brash, is charged with figuring out why New Zealand isn't deriving more bang for its buck.

The debate centres on whether our productivity is undermined by lack of capital investment (factory plant, technology, transport and internet), or a lack of intellectual resource, or an overreliance on primary industry instead of high value manufactured exports. What is not in doubt on either side of the political divide is that New Zealand could do better.

Andrew Little, EPMU National Secretary and Labour Party president,
says: "The problem is we're a small, intimate society, we all like to be each other's mates but when it comes to performing world class and competing with the rest of the world, we need to do something more than that laidback style.

"Top world-class performers are actually freaks, whether it's sports, business, music, the arts.

"Part of our challenge is to get over this obsession that we want our stars and our celebrities to be like us. That's the tension we're up against, that's the tension the All Blacks face all the time: We want them to be world class on the sports field and then we all want to go for a beer with them afterwards and watch them fall over and get drunk."

Could 2011 could be the year the All Blacks end the agony of World Cup failure? Public confidence may not be high, driven by history and, to a lesser extent, current All Black performances.

There is, however, grounds for optimism. There are good young players all around the country who, with the right coaching and the right opportunities, could be dangerous test players in two years. And most important, they could be a side that is coming to the boil, rather than off it by 2011.

The susceptibility to pressure in the past has been caused by a lack of leaders, by the fact that the professional system was tending to produce insular, insecure young men who couldn't tolerate even mild criticism and would be stumped if asked to name the current Prime Minister.

Now, the default graduate to the professional ranks is worldly, more aware of his wider responsibilities within the community and more likely to be engaged in meaningful activity outside rugby.

This newfound strength of character among our best players, this greater self-reliance and capacity for independent thought is the hope to which the nation must cling.

An All Black victory at the World Cup would lay many demons to rest and may become the breakthrough achievement that says to New Zealanders they can do it on the world stage – really, they have what it takes to be the best in the world.

- Herald on Sunday

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