In the phony rugby wars that break out before World Cups something strange is happening in New Zealand.
True to form there's a shot being fired from England, with the new CEO of the Rugby Football Union (yes, plebs like me will always find it amusing that they don't feel the need to put their country's name in the title) saying that when he worked for adidas in 2004 he found the All Blacks arrogant, and dismissive of England's Cup victory in Australia the year before.
Call that at the least stale news, possibly fake news. Sadly what's not so silly is that we're already hearing that the owners of French clubs are telling Pasfika players they'll rip up their contracts if they play for their countries at the Cup in Japan.
But what's slightly spooky here is that, compared to the shivers running down spines before the 2015 Cup, a sense of calm seems to have developed across the nation.
Let's look at the comparisons, and also what might be soothing previously furrowed brows.
OLD AND STALE IN 2015. From 2013 onwards, there was a push from some commentators for, yes I know this sounds ridiculous now, but it really did happen, to ditch Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Time to move Carter to make way for a younger, better player in Aaron Cruden, said one columnist in July, 2013. "Logic suggests the All Blacks will not win the Cup in 2015 with a 33-year-old at 10." Thundered another pundit in May, 2015, about McCaw, "Retire now Richie. Steve Hansen is threatening to defend the Webb Ellis Cup with a bunch of old-timers - a few too many - including well-over-30 veterans McCaw, Dan Carter, Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Conrad Smith. Shag's Army will be Dad's Army." In passing five of those old codgers were in the team that whipped Australia 34-17 in the final.
BUT WISE AND STEADY IN 2019.
Steve Hansen has always acknowledged that the greatest balancing act in selection is knowing when a player is ready, and when he's past it. I'd suggest that he and Ian Foster and Grant Fox got it spot on in '15. That may explain why not too many calls for a cull of the oldies have been sparked by the fact that if Sonny Bill Williams frees himself from injury he's likely to be in the 2019 squad, and that Kieran Read will be the captain if he continues his long term recovery from his December, 2017 back operation.
IN 2015 IT WAS CALLED DISRESPECTING SUPER RUGBY. McCaw, and in particular Carter, were very slow starters in Super Rugby that year. It was a real problem for the Crusaders, who suffered the indignity of not even making the playoffs. But if the duo were lacklustre in February, they had wings on their heels at Twickenham in October.
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IN 2019 WE SEEM TO HAVE REALISED YOU CAN'T PEAK FOR 10 MONTHS. The All Blacks coaches have made no secret of the fact that, for example, Sam Whitelock, after playing virtually every game for the Crusaders in 2017, was "hollowed out", in Foster's words, by the time the All Blacks toured Britain at the end of the year. Of course it would be great if the rugby season wasn't the show that never ends, but as irritating as the rest breaks for All Blacks this year can be, which would you rather have? All guns blazing in Super Rugby? Or the All Blacks in top form in Japan? Because the reality is you can't have both.
THE INJURY LIST DOESN'T FEEL LIKE SUCH A WORRY ANY MORE. Not wanting to jinx anything, so let's not carry on too much about this. But the fact Ben Smith, Owen Franks, Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, and Sonny Bill are all back in harness does feel that normal service for the All Blacks is close at hand.
WHAT TEAMS CONCERNED US IN 2015?
In August of 2015 I spoke at a number of functions up and down the country promoting "In The Cup", a book I'd written on the All Blacks campaigns to that date. At various places I shared a stage with former World Cup coaches Sir Brian Lochore, Grizz Wyllie, and All Blacks captains, Reuben Thorne, Tane Norton, Andy Leslie, Dave Loveridge and World Cup All Black selector Earle Kirton. The All Blacks greatest threat? An almost unanimous vote for England. "The crowd alone will drive them," said Kirton. "Powerful forwards, and home ground advantage," echoed Loveridge. Leslie was also cautious about Ireland. "They're the only northern union where the players are contracted to the national rugby union, not their clubs, so a good coach like Joe Schmidt can organise his training camps with ease." They also all paid due respect to South Africa and Australia, but England, so big, so tough, so full of expectation, loomed as the bogeyman. They didn't make the quarter-finals.
WHAT TEAMS SHOULD WE WORRY ABOUT IN 2019? I'd go for South Africa, who we face in our first game in pool play on September 21, and I know that wiser heads than mine inside the All Blacks believe that Australia, even with all the Folau uproar, and their deeply mediocre Super Rugby teams, could still stitch together a very good squad, many of whom will have the belief, after making the 2015 final, that anything is possible.
DOES HAVING FOUR KIWI TEAMS IN THE FINALS OF SUPER RUGBY MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE? Who knows? It looked like it did in 2015, when the Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 21-14 in the final, and the Chiefs also made the playoffs. But in 2011, when the Crusaders made the final, and were beaten 18-13 by the Reds, the only other New Zealand side in the playoffs were the Blues (I know, hard to believe, but true), who were thumped by the Reds 30-13 in the semifinal. Three months later the All Blacks won the Cup.
SO IS THERE ANYTHING TO REALLY SCARE US IN JAPAN? Look at the list of referees, and see how many are from the northern hemisphere. Now feel free to be very afraid.
All the best Sir Brian
Anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to spend even 10 minutes with Sir Brian Lochore will be wishing nothing but the best for him as he is treated for bowel cancer.
As an All Blacks captain, and then a World Cup winning coach in 1987, his rugby achievements were extraordinary. But what makes him so special is that such a big, physically powerful man has so gentle a manner, and such patent decency that, as one of his players once said to me, "He's someone you never want to let down, because you just want him to think well of you."
Lochore's great mate in the All Blacks, Colin Meads, used to joke that "I could say something, and people would say, 'There's that bloody Meads spouting off again. I never liked him.' Then BJ (Lochore) would say exactly the same thing, and they'd say, 'Aw, he's a lovely man that Brian Lochore.'"
And for the final touch of greatness, it was Brian Lochore who wrote the note that every Kiwi who has ever pulled on a rugby jersey would like to have penned. After a string of despairing phone calls from the 1977 All Blacks selectors, whose team had been ravaged by injuries, he finally agreed on the Friday morning, barely 24 hours before the game at Athletic Park against the Lions, to come out of retirement and play one last test.
His wife Pam was in town, so he wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table of their Wairarapa farmhouse. "Gone to Wellington to play test. Back on Sunday."
Phil Gifford and Simon Barnett are back together on Newstalk ZB from July 1