Hard News by Russell Brown


Winning the RWC: it's complicated

The Wall Street Journal's report describes the second Rugby World Cup semi-final as having been "marked by a series of violent collisions", which is a bit like saying a bear's day is marked by a series of acts of defecation in forested areas.

At the elite level, and more especially in the knockout stages of a world cup, rugby is inevitably about violent collisions. Modern players, trained to a tee in the gym, are powerful beings and in the professional era the collision itself has become the basic unit of dominance. But there's a difference between smashing into other dudes and the controlled ferocity the All Blacks showed on Sunday night.

I fancied that we saw a little of what was to come in the previous weekend's quarter-final, when the All Blacks were doing enough to beat a sturdy Argentinian team but really needed to put the game beyond doubt. At around the 50-minute mark, Richie McCaw and Brad Thorn appeared to act on that. They sharply increased the intensity of their actions at and around the breakdown, smacking and hurling opposition players out of their their way.

This, I thought, is what they're going to from the kick-off next week. And they did.

Tracey Nelson has the numbers. Those of McCaw, Thorn and Owen Franks are outstanding.

Different sports have their special characters and virtues. Cricket, for example, is founded in technique, yet few other sports are so palpably about the personalities of the players, and few are so exquisitely shaped by the earth and the elements. It turns the true fan into at statistician, a psychologist and a meteorologist.

In rugby, the elite challenge is threefold:

1. To be highly disciplined and capable of playing to a pattern -- because if you can rely on your team-mates and they can rely on you to do so, it will minimise the impact of any number of personal errors.

2. To be creative, intuitive and instinctive. The most powerful moment in the modern game is the turnover. There are golden moments between the change of possession and the re-assembly of defensive structures. Teams that seize those moments and conjure with them score tries and sap the morale of their opponents. The best teams also need players who possess the leadership qualities required to change the game plan they trained for when it's not working.

3. To be absolutely off-the-freakin'-dial in a physical sense. And at the same time to be disciplined and accurate and play to a collective pattern. (When Welsh captain Sam Warburton comitted that dreadful tackle on Vincent Clerc in the first semi-final, it was an undisciplined physical act that partially cost his side the game.) Yet players must be still be ready to conjure when the moment demands. We might express forgiveness when Tony Woodcock, having wreaked havoc on the Australian scrum, finds himself in the way of a wide pass and shells it, but deep down, we want it all, from everyone. We have come to expect both personal fury and utter presence of mind.

The All Blacks on Sunday night suppressed some of the creativity after Israel Dagg's balletic offload for Ma'a Nonu's early try, but carried off numbers 1 and 3 pretty much ideally. There were key  moments -- Owen Franks' tackle on Pat McCabe in the 41st minute, when a turnover breakout beckoned, but a crucial penalty against the Wallabies was instead granted -- where players demonstrated both a mental and a physical presence.

In the lead-up to the Cup, some of my liberal friends groused about the idea that the All Blacks are culturally important to New Zealanders. Of course they are. It's silly to argue otherwise. I think that's true not only because the All Blacks are historically world-beaters at what they do, but because their success embodies a combination of virtues that speak to national character. We are very practical artists.

It is perilous to assume that Sunday's final is a fait accompli (do the French have a word for that?), but I confess I'm more wondering whether the All Blacks will grind out a win or find themselves in a position to go nuts in the last half hour.

And then what? A hangover?

Probably. The tournament has been brilliant, but has also failed to perform as advertised in some ways. The present government, unsurprisingly, planned to exploit the RWC feelgood factor, but may now be forced to do so in a way that doesn't exploit Mr Key's electoral strengths. Bluntly, if there's still a ship spewing oil on the beaches of the Bay of Plenty it's not going to be a good look for the Prime Minister to be getting his goof on at the after-party.

It probably comes as no revelation that I've personally enjoyed Rugby World Cup 2011. There have been many good games, my city has been transformed and I've greatly enjoyed having friends over to watch the big matches, and eating and drinking and talking with them.

I've similarly enjoyed going out after games. Even if The Cloud has turned out to be overmanaged and dull as a late-night venue, there has has been a bit of a mad buzz about the city in general. I've also loved  bouts of what I think of as journalistic cycling -- the observational rides on match days.

And now, suddenly, it's about to end. Over. I'm bloody glad it's a holiday on Monday.

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