NZ: Wobble the world wanted

Andrew Hore and Richie McCaw (AP)
Andrew Hore and Richie McCaw (AP)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - Oh, to have been a fly on the wall as Richie McCaw swiftly called his troops into a losing-team huddle after the final whistle had blown on the enthralling Tri-Nations decider in Brisbane on Saturday.

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As Australians basked in the glory at Suncorp Stadium of a stirring double achieved at the venue this year - first the Super Rugby spoils to the Reds, now this third triumph in the southern hemisphere’s keynote competition for the Wallabies - New Zealand captain McCaw clearly felt a need to try to take the sting out of this 25-20 setback, slightly against the odds, as quickly as possible.

After all, having got so majestically out of the Test-match blocks this season, the All Blacks suddenly find themselves unpalatably soaking in successive defeats in the Eastern Cape and Queensland.

Riot act? Words of compassion? Or some sort of mid-point message of assurance and simultaneous reminder of “bigger pictures”, perhaps?
Who knows quite how the leader put his mini-sermon to his men.

Yet the fact remains that, going immediately now into specific preparation for RWC 2011 and with no further pre-tourney opportunity for atonement, a perceived rugby Goliath has crashed to the deck on one Saturday and then the next.

To a pretty considerable extent, two different teams suffered this indignity, because the All Blacks rested some of their heavier cannons against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, and then went much more “first team” anew against the Aussies.

Then again, wasn’t it being argued by some pundits just a few short weeks ago that it doesn’t really matter which personnel the New Zealanders put on the park, because they have such enviable strength in current depth anyway?

So make no mistake, there’s going to be a wee dose of soul-searching within the All Black camp - albeit presumably rather discreetly there, with a more open assessment of things doubtless taking place on street corners, in pubs, and in their domestic media.

Which is an unexpectedly handy little backdrop against which the rest of the planet’s World Cup combatants will jet in, within days, to the rugby-crazy Land of the Long White Cloud.

“New one for NZ: choking before they’ve even got to the World Cup!” was the text message one of my sharp-witted friends sent me as it became apparent the belligerent, in-your-face and sometimes delightfully skilful Wallabies would withstand the second-half counter-onslaught by the All Blacks to arrest a decade-long Tri-Nations barren run.

My reply to his (fun-poking yet also hardly rank inaccurate, of course) statement after a few moments of own contemplation was along the lines of: from a South African point of view, maybe it would have been better if the All Black wobble had come during the World Cup, as per ghastly modern custom for them, rather than on the eve of it?

They do say ahead of several major global sports events, after all, that it is best to peak at them rather than in the lead-up. So this may just have indirectly served as the minor, useful correction the All Blacks required before cranking up their act to fresh levels of artistry once more.

We must not lose sight of the fact that McCaw’s side, who will remain No 1 on the IRB rankings despite tempering events of late, did confirm their pedigree by blitzing back from a daunting 20-3 deficit at half-time to level matters almost exactly on the hour mark.

I’d fancy that at least 80 percent of neutrals watching would have been backing the All Blacks to only turn the screws from there - I know I did - but Will Genia’s moment of solo inspiration, which cleared the way for Kurtley Beale’s decisive touchdown, tilted the scales on the day.

New Zealand continue to be the benchmark in 2011; still deserve to be favourites for the World Cup.

But as the defending champion Springboks and other realistic RWC aspirants zip their bags for the big trek to the bottom of the world, there is a case for suggesting the looming tournament may be a bit more open than we dared imagine not long ago.

Psst, is that 1991-and-beyond RWC jinx going to inflict misery on the “ABs” once more?

I’m not opening my wallet for the attempted cash-in quite yet ...
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