Reality just won’t do at world cups

Two super powers have axed their coaches for returning normal and somewhat predictable results in 2015.

Out with the new and in with the old.

Out with the new and in with the old.

Meyer’s Boks fell to the All Blacks for the 9th time in 11 matches. Lancaster’s England succumbed to Wales, who they’d been almost level-pegging with (but, on balance, losing to) since the previous world cup. In short, their failure to produce an upset this spring cost them their jobs.

It’s not very logical but when journalists lay down their pens for torches and round up the villagers, unions are basically obliged to raise the gallows.

In fairness, both fellas made their share of mistakes. If that’s all they’d done, though, they might still be here. Problem is, they started making other people’s mistakes as well. As the pressure came on, they lost confidence in their ideas, took too much advice and have now died wondering.

Take a look at Lancaster who, two years ago, was making great progress with England. Sure, he was already a little foggy on midfield and had a strange aversion to picking actual openside flankers but his priorities were otherwise pretty clear. The results weren’t bad, either. England just about always ran the All Blacks close—except for when they were flogging us—and they were scoring a quantity and quality of tries that sat along the very best English sides.

But by the time the world cup came around, he was playing a shell game with almost the entire inside-back division and had hung his hopes on the Hail Mary that was Sam Burgess. England lost their focus so badly that even the scrum imploded. The pool of death was blamed in part for their group-stage departure but, in reality, there’s more than one pool they mightn’t have got out of.

Rumour has it that Stu allowed himself to be led by his assistants. Whatever it was that caused the distraction, something clearly clouded his judgement towards the end.

Meyer’s not as sympathetic of a figure. For starters, he was hired as a ready-made professional coach. With a winning Super Rugby pedigree behind him, rookie mistakes were hardly expected. He threw his weight behind a more expansive game but curiously tried to implement it with the same guys his predecessors had failed with. His philosophy was progressive, his selections regressive.

It wasn’t going well until injuries intervened early this year and he populated the side with bright young things like de Allende, Kriel and de Jager. Those selections suggested that he did in fact have a talent strategy to match his game plan, but he’d left it too late. The youth policy was at least 12 months behind schedule and, even then, he was too scared to stick with it. If de Villiers had been available, Meyer would have picked him. Just as he did with Matfield, Habana and Burger, who, despite all the upside of his bravery, is peripherally blind and symptomatic of the Springboks’ limitations. Meyer wouldn’t push the youth agenda South Africa needed and so his bold, shiny ambition was never properly resourced. He was too easily influenced by the traditionalists.

It all goes to show that being a genius is actually the easy part of coaching. The far bigger challenge is in having the courage to act on those ideas and execute them fully.

Meyer’s dismissal is by far the easiest to understand. He’d been around long enough and should’ve brought more conviction to his role. South Africa ought to beat New Zealand more and lose to Australia less. Their failure was due in no small part to Meyer’s lack of imagination and courage at the selection table. It’s no wonder Hansen wanted him to stay on.

Lancaster, though? I dunno. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—his record in 2015 was 2 losses to SANZAR sides and one loss to Wales. That’s exactly the same as Woodward’s lot in RWC-year 1999…when Wales was shite. Clive got another go, won a world cup and we’ve all been paying for it since. Stu was probably owed the same chance to become an insufferable blight on rugby punditry.

Like Meyer, Lancaster was found wanting at the selection table and lost his bottle as the world cup drew nearer, but this was the first time he’d had the chance to make those sorts of mistakes. His 2015 battle scars could have combined well with a smarter set of assistants to make him a formidable coach in 2019.

As it is, Eddie Jones will get the reins. He’s a flavour-of-the-month selection who specialises in playing small ball, which isn’t exactly England’s thing. Disclaimer here: I’m a sceptic who reckons Eddie’s career is mostly predicated on overseeing the unravelling of Rod Maqueen’s work, so take this for the rant it is. He could go on to do good things with England. It’s just that I think Lancaster could’ve too.

Dedicated to lazy

It’s been a tough couple of weeks to be a lazy blogger, but I pushed on with it.

Since last writing, McCaw’s gone off to fly planes, save wine crops and continue being some sort of ridiculous myth. And Lomu’s left us — like he did a lot of tacklers — wishing we could’ve held onto him just a little bit longer. One presumes St. Peter’s put out a ceremonial welcome Catt.

Jonah transformed All Black fortunes when he arrived. We’d been 2nd to Australia for most of the 90s and bookies had us on the 3rd line of betting for the ’95 world cup. Then suddenly we produced the most stunning rugby. On any given play, from any position of the field, a try was possible.

It was more than Jonah, of course. The whole side was incredible but Lomu made it all go.

Think about it. The guys that bounced you off in rugby matches got bounced off by guys who got bounced off by guys who got bounced off by guys who got bounced off by guys who were shit-scared of Jonah. I’ve seen grass do better against lawn mowers than some test forwards did against the big 11.

Had Lomu been healthy his whole career, perhaps McCaw would be retiring as the second greatest All Black. We really only got one year of Jonah in his absolute prime. Imagine another 6 or 7 season of that. Sure, defences would have adjusted. Opponents got bigger. It wouldn’t have been ’95 all the way but it would have been something very like it.

Nephrotic syndrome wasn’t Lomu’s only problem on the rugby field, though. There was a failure among his coaches to comprehend what he really was. Because for all his gobsmacking power and unprecedented ability to run over people, including locks, Jonah was actually a classic winger. He was at his best with an outside break. He’d skin his opposite, get to the sideline and then stave off all comers with that fend.

It was easy. Too easy for the likes of Hart with New Zealand and even Henry with the Blues. They were obsessed with using him as a weapon in the midfield to clatter over the advantage line. Teams that should have been trying to give him space were instead directing him into the most crowded part of the field. It was a waste.

That, combined with waning health, dulled his impact on the international game from as early as ’96. He still did remarkable things, of course, as phenoms are wont to do, but it was an opportunity missed on many levels. And that makes his story all the more remarkable. He changed the game and yet it was only the tip of the iceberg

Against all this, Richie’s final bow becomes a footnote. Death trumps retirement. But then he’s easily summed up anyway. There are very few “what ifs” with McCaw. Just 148 played, 131 won, 2 world cups.

Real runners up

There were two uncomfortable moments for All Black fans at rugby world cup.

More world-cup games needed.

More world-cup games needed.

In the final, from minute 64 (Australia get within 4) to minute 75 (Carter kicks it back out to 10)—and in the semi-final, from minute 1 to minute 80 (brackets not required).

There’s little doubt which of those teams pushed New Zealand harder. Lambie made it 20-18 with 11 minutes to go, after which we were as assured of victory as Scotland was with 3 minutes to go in the quarters. If you lead by just two points in rugby, your fate’s not entirely in your own hands.

When the Boks subsequently got a lineout deep in New Zealand territory, organs began to lose function. Those self-same organs were already metabolizing celebratory booze at the equivalent point of the final.

So are the Boks the true next-best thing in rugby? Not only did they nearly upset New Zealand but they came through the real pool of death, where Japan, Samoa and Scotland turned Group B into a bona fide four-horse race. Pool A had been reduced to two teams by the end of the first fortnight.

Meanwhile, if you strip back the hype, Australia really only played one game where the result was in doubt before kickoff (not including the final). I was guilty of giving Wales and Argentina a chance against them but, truth is, those sides had only beaten the Wallabies once each in the past decade.

Take those games out and you’re left with their clinic against England as Australia’s defining body of work. It certainly was an impressive dissection of the hosts but it should be remembered the poms were so lost in 2015 that Fiji had dominated their scrum a fortnight earlier.

Perhaps the 2019 tournament should go a week longer, allowing the winner of 3 v 4 to play the loser of the final, just so we have everything straight. Failing that, all we can do is theorize.

My personal view is that the Wallabies probably would have beaten the Boks if they’d met in the final. South Africa’s squad has a lot of upside but, for now, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. They have the toolbox to run New Zealand closer than anyone else—namely a 30-piece hammer set—but they’re rather prone to hitting their own thumb. They’re clumsy brutes and I suspect Australia would figure them out.

What do you think?

Sorry…

RWC_JeromeAh, normal sleep. Normal adrenalin. Normal data bills.

It was a fantastic world cup, yes, but I won’t miss getting up at 4am every week to see what my next four years is going to be like.

This tournament was probably more enjoyable than 2011 but the overriding emotion was still one of relief, and a little bit of shame (I’ll come to that later). The end result was pretty hard to argue with. The world cup’s 4th-placed team lost as many games at this tournament as New Zealand lost since the last tournament. It would have been a little strange calling someone else world champion.

In the end, Australia couldn’t manufacture as many turnovers as they could sheep jokes (why’s everything gotta be a putdown with those guys?) and so Hansen completed a pretty remarkable four years. But not all kiwis should congratulate themselves too quickly. Most of us didn’t get a run on Sunday and only three got to prove the wisdom of their selections. Some of us owe some apologies. Let me begin.

I’m sorry Jerome Kaino. Not as sorry as people who carry the ball near you, but sorry nonetheless. A husk of your former self for most of the past 2 years, these knockouts were monumental. It started with a compelling first 40 against France, built into a rock-solid 70 in the semi and culminated with a bulldozing final against Australia. The Wallabies sacrificed loose-forward power for their dual-fetcher model and got away with it all year. It was starting to look like they’d bring about the death of the blockbusting back-rower. Then Kaino stood up; not just for New Zealand but for every car-eating, titanium-hewn cyborg that wants to play rugby for time immemorial. Again—and I can’t stress this enough—I’m really, very, deeply sorry.

Apologies also to Richie McCaw. He didn’t get criticised too much on this blog but that’s mostly because I assumed there were treason laws forbidding it. And if there aren’t, there bloody-well should be. Truth is, I thought he was well passed his best. And truth is, he probably was. Still a great captain: yes. Still a great openside: *inhales through teeth*. But for 80 minutes on Sunday, he was busy and effective. Cleaning up loose balls, winning turnovers, freeing wingers to score decisive tries—that sort of thing. Turns out he had one more big game in him. I’d hoped that might be the case but I wasn’t sure. Sorry for doubting you, Richie. My brain is wisdomless.

This one’s tough but sorry Sonny. I don’t dislike the guy but I absolutely despised the process by which he became a 2015 squad member and had serious doubts about his ability to deliver. Of all the RWC doomsday scenarios that cycled through my mind, an ill-advised Sonny-Bill offload going for an intercept try was the one that got the most airtime. Critically, though, he learned not to try too much. There was Zen and authority to what he did. He became a perfect squad member and has proved that he could be a bona fide test starter, if he sticks around. For the first time in my life, I hope he does. Deepest forgiveness-begging, Mr Williams. (Though your manager can still get stuffed.)

And for all of this, I owe some contrition to Steve Hansen. There’s a lot of depth to that guy. He knows stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. He turned over half the team post-2011 and left half intact. I worried it wasn’t enough. And by “worry,” I mean I had to feed myself intravenously last week because eating certainly wasn’t an option. Yet they were 17 points better all along. SEVENTEEN. Double the next best side in the world. Three blindsides was still way too many to take but it doesn’t matter because there’s another little mug to be embroidered on the All Black sleeve. Talk about leaving the jersey in better shape than you found it. The scrum stood up (or didn’t stand up, more to the point), the breakdown passed the Wallaby acid test, the defense was brutally efficient, the attack fluid, and all those criticised selections were right. Every one of them. It also went a little under the radar, given the intense focus on scrums at this world cup, but New Zealand’s lineout was practically infallible. How fitting. During the Henry era, Hansen (as forwards coach) was widely pilloried for the All Blacks’ consistent failings in that set piece. There’s poetry to the way this panned out. Not just in the execution, but in the simple fact he clearly made the lineout a priority when everyone else in world rugby was infatuated with pushing and grunting. He found better, more fruitful things to worry about (not that he actually worried, becauseit’s a wasted emotion). Sorry, Steve. And thank you.

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