RWC 2003: The All Blacks peak too early

By Gregor Paul

There were staunch faces at the top table. That was understandable as there was bad news to be delivered.

New Zealand, as revealed by rugby union executives Jock Hobbs and Chris Moller, would be looking for a new All Blacks coach. That was the board's decision made supposedly before the All Blacks had crashed out of the tournament in the semifinal.

If the executive had indeed made that decision before the 22-10 loss to Australia, it means it was possible that John Mitchell could have coached the All Blacks to World Cup victory and lost his job.

The prospect of that scenario actually panning out highlights just what a mess the rugby union was in by the end of the 2003 World Cup.

The All Blacks had again seemingly peaked too early. In July 2003 they put 50 points on South Africa and Australia in consecutive weeks. But by November, on the same ground where they had hammered the Wallabies earlier in the year, they were out-thought and out-muscled.

Yet another World Cup failure was hard for New Zealanders and the NZRU to stomach. The All Blacks had come into the tournament as one of the favourites alongside England.

The All Blacks appeared to be a side with few weaknesses and when they swept through their pool, being troubled only by a gutsy Wales side for 65 minutes, they looked good value.

When they blasted past an ordinary Springbok side with a big display from the forwards in the quarter-final, they looked very good value. In fact, they probably looked champions-elect at that stage, as England had toiled through their group and had been far from convincing in their quarter-final while the Wallabies had taken an age to put Scotland to the sword.

France had the look of a dark horse with a strong showing against Ireland suggesting they were coming into form at the right time.

But the All Blacks were the team being backed with the smart money.

Their forwards had dismissed doubts about their effectiveness and there was no question they had the talent out wide.

Maybe the team bought into the hype. Maybe they believed they were already in the final and just had to turn up to beat the Wallabies in the semifinal.

The All Blacks certainly didn't benefit from staying in Melbourne for most of the week and flying to Sydney only a few days before the test.

And, with hindsight, we all know that the decision to play regular fullback Leon MacDonald at centre was a judgement call that backfired.

The Wallabies snaffled an intercept try after 12 minutes and the All Blacks were rocked so hard they stopped believing in themselves.

They couldn't defend against the impressive Stirling Mortlock who was continually used to punch big holes in the All Black midfield.

Worse still, the All Blacks couldn't cope with the intensity of the Wallaby defence. They double-teamed both Jerry Collins and Keven Mealamu and the All Blacks didn't have anyone else to carry the ball over the gain line and build momentum.

In the end it was an insipid All Black performance and once again they had failed spectacularly to handle the pressure of the big occasion. The defeat highlighted serious faults within New Zealand rugby; the set-piece work was ordinary, there was too much emphasis on individual talent rather than collective grunt and the All Blacks had become estranged from their external shareholders.

Moller and Hobbs were wearing their grim faces because they knew what a dark place the national team was in. So much so that Moller felt compelled to take the unusual step of publicly criticising Mitchell.

"There is concern around areas of the media, the interface with the rugby union and some sponsor activity as well," said the chief executive of the All Black coach's performance. "Clearly there has to be an appropriate balance. It can't be one way to the exclusion of the other. But at the end of the day, the on-field performance is the crucial factor."

That pronouncement effectively spelled the end for Mitchell. He re-applied for his job but lost out to Graham Henry who the NZRU board believed was the right man to lead an All Black renaissance.

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