The All Blacks: A Report from a Kiwi Curler
The Rugby World Cup begins next week. My travel request to go cover this live in England and France was turned down. But from now until the RWC's end, or at least until I run out of material, I will be attempting at least one rugby post per day. Also, let me know if you can guest-write a team preview, or if you can invite me to an entertaining RWC watch party, or if you have any other coverage ideas. Bear in mind that, if you're still reading this, you know more about the actual game than I do. And write here to join my RWC Fantasy League.
This is a guest post written by ex-Canadian and current Kiwi Hans Frauenlob. If you're obsessed with my career, you might remember Hans as a member of the New Zealand Olympic curling team, which I relentlessly chronicled last February. Hans used to work for the Toronto Blue Jays and is an all-around sports fiend; I asked him whether the excitement about RWC was building in New Zealand. Here's what he wrote, after the jump.
'Is there is any excitment?' Surely you jest. Rugby World Cup is all-consuming down here. For example, yesterday the All Blacks left for France. It was front page news in all the dailies, and led the evening news on all channels. These are guys getting on a plane. The airport ground crew gave them a haka. I'm picking that that didn't happen for the US and Canadian rugby teams. We didn't generate that kind of excitement when we left for Turin :)
Johann (my son) has asked if it's ok for him to set the alarm for 4:30 am so he can watch games live.
There's an interesting and conflicting set of national expectations around the All Blacks. In some respects it's like Canada and ice hockey at the Olympics. With the All Blacks and rugby, at one level there's an (unrealistic) national expectation that we're going to win every game we play - and if we win and don't crush an opponent, that's often seen as disappointing. It was the same in Canada with hockey (or curling for that matter) - not much fear or even respect for opponents, and an unshakable belief that a gold medal is destiny and anything less is abject failure.
But when it comes to the Rugby World Cup, there's that expectation of winning here, but there's also unspoken apprehension. We expect to win, we know we should win, we almost always have the best record leading into a World Cup....but we haven't won one since 1987. It's not quite in the 'curse of the Bambino' league, but it's there in the back of everyone's minds. In the last two Cups, we've lost at semi-final stage.
The Australians revel in this - going into World Cups, they love to label the All Blacks 'chokers'. Until we win one again, that's not going to go away. This is a uniquely 'Rugby World Cup' phenomenon - at all other times, the rest of the rugby world seems content to acknowledge the All Blacks as the best team in the world and the standard everyone else is measured by. That's the view of the All Blacks that the average Kiwi likes. This is a bit unhealthy, but that's the attitude. We tend to get a bit prickly when our guys are labelled as anything other than the best (the Aussies know they can really wind Kiwis up by criticising the All Blacks - which is why they do it!).
The current All Blacks team looks really good. The coach (Graham Henry) has taken a locally controversial approach to building up for the World Cup. Over the last couple of years, he's had a 'rotation policy', aimed at giving international experience to a larger number of players. World Cup squads have 30 players for the tournament (as it's a long tournament). For regular international games, there are squads of 22. This has meant that All Blacks sides have gone into international play for the last couple of years without their 'best possible' lineup for every game. That is heresy for some New Zealanders, who feel that an All Black side must always play the best available players.
The objective was to built up a squad of 30 top level international players, with a lot of interchangable parts. The AB's suffered in the last couple of World Cups when key players got injured, and their replacements weren't up to the challenge of the occasion due to inexperience. Henry is determined that that isn't going to happen this time. From my point of view, he's succeeded. There's a lot more depth in the squad this year than there was in the last couple of teams. But all teams (including the All Blacks) suffer if they lose their best players.
So - from New Zealand - we believe. The All Blacks are the best team. We know that. But funny things can happen in a single game, and you won't find many New Zealanders brave enough to say out loud 'We're going to win this thing' because we think we'll somehow jinx the All Blacks if we do. But we all think that the All Blacks are going to win. And I'm brave enough to type it. We're going to win.
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