Rugby: It's choke or World Cup treat for All Blacks

By Pirate Irwin

PARIS - New Zealanders regard rugby like Brazilians view football - they're nuts about it.

However the extraordinary fact is the All Blacks have only won one World Cup title and that was the inaugural one in 1987 - since then they have only made one final where they lost to South Africa in an emotional climax in Johannesburg.

Time and time again the cliche 'look great on paper' has been applied to the Kiwis after they have beaten up - sometimes literally - every side in the intervening years between World Cups' only to come up short at the sport's global showpiece.

Choker is never a nice term to apply to anyone involved in sport but this is exactly what they have gained in the years since 1987 and this time there will be nowhere to hide for them.

Seldom could a more accomplished trio of coaches been involved in one team, two former Wales handlers in Graham Henry and Steve Hansen as well as a former All Black head coach Wayne Smith, now in charge of the vibrant backs.

It is a winning formula that has seen Henry - known initially as the 'Great Redeemer' when he took on the Welsh job - guide the All Blacks to 38 victories from 43 Tests in his four-year reign, but as impressive as that record may seem he knows his reputation hangs on the World Cup.

"There is an appetite in this country for the All Blacks to win the World Cup, and I can understand that appetite," he says.

"We are a very focused rugby nation and the success of the rugby team is important to the psyche of the nation. We understand that, we agree with that and we live by that."

However for their arch rivals Australia - who sensationally downed them in the semi-finals in Sydney in 2003 prompting the memorable if irritating remark from Wallabies scrum-half George Grean "Four more years, boys" - there are chinks in their armour even though in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Joe Rocokoko they possess three of the most potent forces in world rugby.

Certainly for former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer the side is not on the same level as it was since the 45-6 demolition of France three years ago.

"I've never seen any team play like they did for the full 80 minutes that day, so in some ways, it's inevitable they're in decline," he said.

"When you are at an absolute peak, the only way you can go is down."

Many national coaches could well raise their eyebrows at those comments especially French handler Bernard Laporte, who has the onerous responsibility of trying to land the William Webb Ellis trophy for the first time for the ever unpredictable French.

Laporte, who has never managed to win over his critics, has at least a definite future employment after the World Cup as French Sports Minister but it would do him no end of good were he to take the tag of World Cup winning coach into it.

Certainly the French still retain some of their flair with the mercurial Frederic Michalak at fly-half and veteran Christophe Dominici - who has quit smoking to be fit for the tournament - on the wing but if Laporte's coaching is going the same way as his mouth then the hosts could be in trouble.

His barbed comments about how other countries such as England and New Zealand may not be drugs free - subsequently strongly denied by both nations - and his astonishing verbal attack on referee Stuart Dickinson following a 42-11 walloping by the All Blacks in June, to whom he apologised later, suggest a man not handling the pressure very well.

Of the other nations titleholders England started off their warm-ups with a 62-5 dismantling of a quite frankly disinterested Welsh side and a lot hinges on the fitness as ever of their 2003 World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson.

The same can be said for the Irish, who if Brian O'Driscoll gets banged up early on could go from viable contenders to listless no hopers and even exit in the group stage at the expense of the live dark horses Argentina.

Both Australia and South Africa can harbour hopes of going the whole way with Stirling Mortlock proving to be an outstanding skipper for the Wallabies and with the boost of having beaten the All Blacks for the first time in five matches in this season's Tri Nations - the Kiwis rebounded to beat them in the final match and take the title.

The Springboks could prove to be the surprise package in terms of the major nations as under Jake White they have restored a lot of their image since the ridicule of boot training camps that preceeded the previous disastrous World Cup foray.

- AFP

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