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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: High expectations take fun out of rugby

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The All Blacks can be far above their opponents, but unless it's a demolition job we still expect more. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The All Blacks can be far above their opponents, but unless it's a demolition job we still expect more. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Steve Hansen is the latest in a long line of All Black coaches and players to insist that the public's expectations of dominance with style - one virtuoso demolition job after another - is a positive thing because it pushes the team to keep raising the bar.

They wouldn't have it any other way, he says.

"What it does is raise our own internal expectations to a higher level."

It's often said that the All Blacks are driven by a "fear of failure" - fear of being unworthy of the jersey, fear of tarnishing the legacy and - although this is seldom admitted publicly - fear of the inevitable firestorm of media and public criticism.

There's evidence to suggest that this works. Not only do the All Blacks win more often than any other team, but when they do lose it's rarely by more than a few points.

The Springboks and Wallabies, year-in year-out our most formidable adversaries, have suffered 50-point humiliations in the professional era without coaches and players having to seek asylum in a foreign embassy, as would be the case here.

But how high is too high? Have everyone's expectations soared to such stratospheric levels that it's detracting from our enjoyment of the game?

For years we've complained about unmotivated, under-strength European teams coming here to wave the white flag. Sure enough, when Ireland were taken apart in the first test, praise for the All Black performance came with the deflationary proviso that the visitors were a rabble, barely worthy of being a rugby equivalent of the champ's sparring partner.

A Fairfax report of an Irish press conference before the second test noted the "increasingly dismissive tone" adopted by the local media.

"The tourists could be forgiven for thinking they were attending their own wake," it said.

"The coach and captain had everything bar their presence questioned."

As happens time after time, the punditry made their predictions on the assumption that the players are machines with a single setting -the second test therefore would simply be a continuation of the first.

As happens time after time, it was anything but.

Former England captain and coach Martin Johnson recently reminded us that, "We've all seen teams that have come off a bad loss and been written off by the public and media turn around and produce a big performance, because it's a basic human drive to come out fighting when you're cornered."

We got the committed, competitive performance from a European side that we've supposedly been yearning for, but some of us were too focused on the All Blacks' perceived shortcomings to appreciate it.

The narrow victory was the cue for a display of our increasing tendency to disparage any All Black performance in which the opposition aren't put to the sword.

The media were so hell-bent on accentuating the negative that several reports asserted the Irish were robbed of a historic victory by Dan Carter's late drop goal, when in fact the scores were level at that stage.

The old line about winning everywhere but on the scoreboard was trotted out, even though the match statistics suggest that if anything the scoreboard flattered the visitors - the All Blacks dominated territory and possession, and were superior in every category bar penalties and yellow cards conceded.

For years we've wanted the All Blacks to learn how to win ugly, but when they do we discount the win and recoil from the ugly.

The All Blacks played their part, acting as if they'd lost the game which, apart from anything else, is a bit disrespectful of the opposition. They admitted their preparation and attitude hadn't been quite right and promised to have a good, long look in the mirror.

You half expected the repentant wretches to fall to their knees and confess that "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us".

We are in danger of becoming impossible to please, if indeed we're not there already, demanding crushing superiority but bored by it, claiming to want nail-biting contests that go down to the wire, but resentful of having to contemplate the prospect of defeat and taking it out on the players and coaches. (Hands up those who enjoyed the game a lot more when they watched it again.) In turn the players, ever mindful of being accountable to the "stakeholders" and being seen to take their awesome responsibilities seriously, sheepishly admit that they didn't do the jersey, the country or themselves justice, and vow to do better next time.

It may be a recipe for success, but it's hardly a recipe for enjoyment.

- NZ Herald

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