All Blacks glitter, but doubts will remain
When Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads speaks, his fellow Kiwis hush up and listen, his pronouncements on rugby the sporting equivalent of Franklin D Roosevelt's fireside chats.
Drive into his home town of Te Kuiti in the Waikato region and you will see a huge sign bearing the legend 'Meadsville - where rugby is the only religion'. While this might be news to the congregation of Te Kuiti Anglican Church, it gives you some idea of his standing. What the late Sir Donald Bradman is to Australia, so Meads is to New Zealand.
So when the 75-year-old announced before the All Blacks' second World Cup 'hit-out' (they love saying that down here) against Japan that he had his concerns, it caused a certain amount of hand-wringing. As fellow All Black Andrew Mehrtens said on New Zealand television, if 'Pinetree' thinks our boys have got problems, then there must be something to it.
Meads was not the only Kiwi querying the All Blacks following their stuttering victory over Tonga in Auckland last week. Indeed, conspiracy theorists have been out in force all this week. And when they start spinning their yarns, you know something like paranoia has set in.
New Zealand ran 13 tries through Japan inside the 80 minutes, leaving their opponents battered and bruised. Photo: Getty
When first Dan Carter and then Richie McCaw withdrew from the side to play Japan in Hamilton, voices in the media suggested they were not injured at all and that coach Graham Henry was up to his old tricks, rotating his squad by stealth.
Certainly, Henry's decision to make six changes for Japan, before the withdrawal of his star duo and full-back Mils Muliaina, led some Kiwi journalists to conclude that the lessons of four years before had not been learnt.
In 2007, much of the blame for New Zealand's early exit was laid at Henry's door. While eventual winners South Africa started the tournament with what was perceived to be their strongest side and stuck with it all the way to the final, Henry chopped and changed and tinkered, before being rumbled by France on a memorable night in Cardiff.
So while, to most people, the 83-7 drubbing of the 'Brave Blossoms' in Hamilton might seem mightily impressive, in a country that frets about its rugby team as much as this one, it will not have blasted away the doubts that cling to the All Blacks like barnacles.
After a disjointed start, New Zealand slipped through the gears and, in the end, registered a performance that everyone will no doubt call 'clinical'. It is the term people use when the opposition was not up to much, but plucky nonetheless, and got the shellacking they deserved.
Flanker Jerome Kaino was perhaps the outstanding performer on the night, although man-of-the-match Ma'a Nonu was magnificent, too, almost toying with Japanese defenders at times.
And what about Sonny Bill Williams on the wing? The scorer of two tries, Williams in full flight is a joy to behold: built like an ape but with the touch of a miniature portrait painter.
Nevertheless, the final whistle was still echoing around Waikato Stadium when already the doubters had pounced: Japan, showing 10 changes from the side that gave France a fright last week in Albany, were weak; the All Blacks made too many errors; Sonny Bill's no winger and he's going to end up regretting one of those Hollywood offloads.
Sonny Bill Williams on the wing: "Built like an ape but with the touch of a miniature portrait painter." Photo: Getty
Seen through less clouded eyes, it was a ruthless bullying of an inferior foe: focused, efficient, merciless, pretty much everything you could ask for in the circumstances. It was the night the All Blacks revived the notion of World Cup minnows, a notion we thought might be dead.
Talking of minnows, down here in New Zealand there has been much talk of their proper place following some stirring performances from the less-established nations in the opening week of the World Cup.
When I spoke to Namibia captain Jacques Burger last week, he noted what a shame it was that these smaller teams get to show what they are capable of for four games every four years before disappearing again into the ether.
Whether the World Cup giant-slaying many of us crave happens in this tournament, we will have to wait and see. But the closer the gap gets between the so-called big nations and the smaller teams, the more arbitrary and exclusive a tournament like the Six Nations appears.
And the day a Romania or a Georgia manage to pull off an upset, despite the odds being stacked against them in terms of less resources and shorter turnarounds, is the day they might turn round and say: "If Italy, who hardly ever win anyway, are allowed in, then why not us?" And, no, the fact Rome in spring might be prettier than Bucharest should not have a bearing.