John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: All Blacks need not be sore losers

Our rugby culture should allow for some grace and dignity in defeat

Richie McCaw looks dejected after Crusaders loss to the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw looks dejected after Crusaders loss to the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images

Richie McCaw is the model New Zealander of today. Like Hillary, he is the epitome of the qualities we admire and the people we think ourselves to be.

He, Graham Henry and, now, Steve Hansen, have made the current All Blacks more than a rugby team. They have built a culture of sustained excellence that stands with the elite of any sport in the world and the culture has become a model too for business, politics and personal success.

The essence of it is a constant reach for a higher level of performance. Having won the World Cup in 2011, they were not content. Hansen built an even better team in 2012 and last year it went undefeated.

Tonight they could set a new record of consecutive victories, becoming statistically the best ever. When the team clicks, as it usually does, its game is so fast, expansive, accurate and dominant that you wonder how it could possibly get better. But there is one more level it could reach. It could learn to lose like a champion.

Losing well is possibly the last great step the All Blacks need to take. When today's tennis champions, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, drop a grand slam final, often to the other, they don't spend too long in postures of abject desolation. When they come to the microphone, they don't confine their comments to dark disappointment and self-reproach. They praise the winner.

That does not mean a mumbled concession - it is a fulsome, generous salute to the qualities of the other side. Springbok captains can do this. Jean de Villiers is always gracious, Bismarck du Plessis was pleasant and generous as well as disappointed after his Sharks' sub-par performance against the Crusaders in the Super 15 semifinal a few weeks ago.

But the following week when the Waratahs won the final we heard only disappointment from Crusaders captain Kieran Read.

Behind him, Richie and the rest of the team looked like they had suffered a death in the family. Yet that match, like many in rugby, had been decided by a last-minute penalty, one of those that could be awarded at just about every tackle when players pile in.

The game could as easily have gone the other way. A few minutes earlier the Crusaders had edged in front when the Waratahs conceded a similar penalty.

It was a good game. The Waratahs ripped into it from the kick-off. The Crusaders were lethargic for the first 20 minutes and lucky not to be deeper in deficit at half-time. But they came back well in the second half. Neither team had reason to be despondent at the end.

Waiting for the awards Richie positioned himself, deliberately it seemed, so that all his teammates could see the grim self-flagellation on his face. It may have merely reflected his regret at giving away the decisive penalty but it looked more like he was setting the tone he thought appropriate for a New Zealand team dealing with a defeat.

Does our rugby culture really need this? It is not a good look to the rest of the world. It makes us appear childish and petulant and, worse, it detracts from the All Blacks' image. An inability to accept occasional defeat with dignity and sporting generosity suggests a deep-seated insecurity - a fear that the team really is only as good as its last result.

The culture has been built on the principle that winning is all that matters. A new book, Legends in Black by 1960s All Black trialist Tom Johnson and others (Penguin $39.99), contains the testimony of 11 former captains and coaches to the power of a winning legacy and the pressure to maintain it.

In a forward to the book, Vince Lombardi, coach of American football's Green Bay Packers, says the All Blacks' 75 per cent winning record is one of the best in world sport, exceeding Brazil's 62 per cent in association football and the most successful American football franchises such as the Chicago Bulls and San Francisco 49ers.

Winning really is all that matters, not just to the All Blacks but possibly even more so to the public and press. A last-minute penalty, a single point margin, can mean the difference between an ecstatic review of the game and a crisis of confidence in the coach, players, the game in this country and its future.

It seems a long time since England surprised the All Blacks at the end of another glorious year. We will be surprised again. Probably not tonight; the team has returned to Sydney tuned up by the Super Rugby result two weeks ago.

But when it happens, I hope we discover the coach and captain have discussed something new. A few generous words would grace our game.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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