Pressure mounts on New Zealand to end wait for World Cup win
The shadow that appears over the Land of the Long White Cloud every four years is looming large.
Even more so this time, since the potential for further pain and humiliation is right on their doorstep.
A nation of four million at the end of the earth expects their status as the world's number one rugby team to be belatedly adorned with a second World Cup victory, 24 years after the first. Not too much to ask, is it?
Graham Henry has the burden of a nation on his shoulders. Photo: Getty
"There is obviously a huge expectation among the New Zealand public for the All Blacks to win the World Cup," says Graham Henry, the coach charged with delivering that goal. "That's right and proper and I've not got a problem with that. They've gone a few years without that happening so I guess every time it does not happen, the expectation gets higher. It's a positive, not a negative. We understand that and accept it."
Accepting it is one thing, but can they cope with the relentless pressure, the endless scrutiny, the constant jibes about their tendency to always 'choke' at World Cups?
Is it even a fair accusation? The perception is that New Zealand are always the best team coming into the tournament and yet don't win it. The reality is that of the five editions since their victory in the inaugural one on home soil in 1987, they were probably the best team entering it only on two occasions, in 1995 and 2007.
"Those are the only two we should have won but we didn't," believes All Black legend Zinzan Brooke, a member of the 1987 winning squad, who played in the 1991 semi-final loss to Australia and the 1995 final defeat by South Africa. "In 1995 we definitely should have won, but we weren't good enough in 1991 or 1999. We certainly were not good enough in 2003."
In 1995, there is no doubt some senior All Blacks were affected by illness on the day of the final, even if the claims of poisoning by a South African waitress called 'Suzie' stretched the boundaries of credibility. Ultimately they were beaten by a superbly combative Springboks team fuelled by the emotion of unifying the 'Rainbow Nation' in the presence of Nelson Mandela.
In 2007 you could say they were unlucky against France - losing Dan Carter to injury, the referee missing a forward pass in the build-up to the winning try - but ultimately they didn't have the wherewithal to conjur a match-winning drop-goal, something apparently anathema to All Black instincts, despite their importance in the outcome of the 1995, 1999 and 2003 tournaments.
Another New Zealand legend, Jonah Lomu, who holds the record of 15 World Cup tries from the 1995 and 1999 tournaments, rejects the idea those and other All Blacks sides 'choked', pointing out New Zealand's dominance in Tests outside the tournament is no basis on which to judge their favouritism for the big one.
"Everyone looks at the World Cup and judges it by the end-of-year Tests or the Tri-Nations but they are not the World Cup," he says. "The World Cup is a different kettle of fish. It is a tournament for six weeks. You are living in each other's pockets. There are certain things you can't control. If you manage to keep a happy camp through the tournament, you are well off. If someone loses form, that can also affect things. These elements can tip the scale towards you losing. There is no break in a World Cup. The pressure is on every week."
According to Lomu, the key to whether the class of 2011 can deliver the prize their ability undoubtedly merits, or whether they follow their predecessors into World Cup ignominy, will be their ability to 'tune out' from the hype and the fever pitch the rest of the nation will reach over the course of the tournament.
"Six weeks is a long time to keep the mind fresh," the gentle giant notes. "You won't be able to get any fitter or stronger in that period, you can only maintain fitness. But you want to keep fit mentally and I think it is all going to come down to that, keeping your mental focus, being able to switch on and switch off. I think that is the key component of winning the World Cup."
So will it be any different this time? Certainly if we look at some of the characteristics of previous World Cup-winning sides, the All Blacks tick most of the boxes.
Experienced? You could say. The last three World Cup-winning sides boasted, respectively, going into the tournament, 560 caps (Australia, in 1999), 565 caps (England, 2003) and 602 caps (South Africa, 2007).
New Zealand's likely first-choice side now have 842 caps between them, with another couple of hundred on the bench. They have eight players with 50-plus caps, led by All Black record-holders Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina (98 each), with a couple more in Conrad Smith and Jimmy Cowan poised to hit the 50-mark.
Only South Africa, who can also boast 800-plus caps in their first-choice line-up, bear comparison among the other leading nations at this World Cup. (Interestingly, Ireland (637 caps), France (630), Wales (585) and England (553) also boast a level of experience in their side close to previous winners in the professional era.)
Half a dozen contenders for a world XV? Definitely. Muliaina, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock and McCaw would certainly be in that category, with arguably one or two more.
Ability to grind out wins under pressure? A lot has been made of the recent Tri-Nations decider in Brisbane, as if this was proof positive that the All Blacks can't win tight games when the stakes are high. Rewind 12 months. They clinched the Tri-Nations title by coming from behind with two tries in the last two minutes to beat South Africa in Johannesburg, and then came from 22-9 down with 13 minutes left to beat Australia in Sydney and complete a historic clean sweep. The manner of those victories did not suggest a team that buckles under pressure, rather one that thrives on it.
New Zealand are looking to lift a 24-year cloud. Photo: Getty
No pain, no gain? England's 2003 World Cup winners all talk about the valuable lessons learned from painful defeats in Grand Slam deciders and the 1999 World Cup, and how they carried that experience into the tournament that ultimately defined them as players.
If Anton Oliver's memorable description of the All Blacks dressing room - "desolate, decay, the putrid smell of, I don't know, death" - in the aftermath of their 2007 quarter-final defeat by France is anything to go by, then Muliaina, Carter, Woodcock, McCaw, Ali Williams, Andrew Hore and Isaia Toeava, all present on that occasion, will not have to delve too deep into the hurt locker for any further motivation.
"We are pretty experienced this time," notes McCaw. "Most of us have been through at least one World Cup and we know what it takes."
Battle hardened? Unlike the last two tournaments, New Zealand should have at least one tough pool game before the knock-out stages, with France in their group. Tonga, in Friday's tournament opener at Eden Park, should also give them a decent workout in the physicality stakes.
The Auckland venue, where they will also face the French, and play their quarter-final, semi-final and final if they go all the way, should be a source of home comfort. The All Blacks haven't lost there since 1994.
They will be damned if they don't win it, and probably damned with faint praise if they do.
"The critics will be out saying, 'Yeah, New Zealand won it but they can never win outside of their own country'," according to Brooke.
But right now, the country would probably settle for that.