A Pacific World Cup
September 7, 2011
Samoa greeted their fans with the siva tau © Getty Images
You can feel it in the air. This is going to be a great Rugby World Cup. Auckland's Pacific communities have turned out in joyous and ecstatic force to welcome the Samoan, Tongan and Fijian squads on arrival at the International Airport; impromptu hakas have mesmerised the crowds on Auckland's Queen Street; small rural towns throughout the country have spruced themselves up and Europeans, Northern and Southern Americans, Asians and Africans have been powhiried like never before.
The All Blacks' history of World Cup underachievement is both baffling and tedious. No other rugby playing nation has won as many Test matches and yet run into so many World Cup ambushes. The only point in mentioning it, yet again, is that it does colour judgements about the host nation's prospects in 2011. Having gone into every previous tournament as favourites, and only having emerged as champions once, way back in the last century, will they find a way to deliver this time? Or navigate another route to disappointment and disillusion?
The All Blacks will clearly be under huge pressure of expectation and how they manage this, individually and collectively, will ultimately decide their fate. I don't doubt that they are good enough to win the World Cup, and I don't doubt that they will be fiendishly difficult to beat on their own patch. But the composition of the World Cup squad, events in Brisbane in defeat to the Wallabies and the team announcement for the opening fixture against Tonga on Friday evening all create doubts about the All Blacks' ultimate destiny. And an uneasy sense that the selectors made some real blunders in their squad picks.
The omission of wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Hosea Gear seemed perverse in August and seems even more so in September. Both offered a physical presence, the mercurial ability to terrorise any opposition from any position on the field. One of the preferred picks, Zac Guildford, endured an uncomfortable evening in the Brisbane Bledisloe defeat and the other, Cory Jane, had a quiet night. Jane's performance was not a concern because he is in the squad for his utility, but Guildford's omission from Friday's starting line-up against Tonga does raise some issues. In picking Richard Kahui on one wing and Isaia Toeava on the other Graham Henry has acknowledged the need for physical bulk in what is likely to be a bruising opening encounter. Except that Kahui is really a midfield back, understudying Conrad Smith, and whilst Toeava has had some success on the wing he has never established himself as an automatic selection in any position. Whilst the backline to play Tonga looks physically powerful and, in footballing terms, accomplished it still has an experimental feel at a time when most observers felt that this was now the time to field the strongest team available.
There are similar concerns amongst the forwards, although Henry could justifiably claim that his hand has been forced by the injuries to Kieran Read and Adam Thomson. The influential No.8 is expected back in action before the end of pool play but back-row resources will seem a little stretched until this eventuates. Victor Vito's World Cup inclusion seemed to rest on a late surge of form and his suitability and consistency at this level remains largely untested. Not that Waikato's Liam Messam's claims had been all that compelling. Perhaps the All Blacks' back row resources do not have the depth that everyone had assumed. If Read's absence deprives the back row unit of a major component part of its dynamism, imagine what a serious injury to Richie McCaw would do to Henry's planning. It is unthinkable. He is probably lying awake as I write.
Apart from the injury implications, it is widely held that the Brisbane loss may not have been such a bad thing for the All Blacks. It certainly does not allow them to enter the tournament with any sense of complacency. All aspects of their game needed attention in the wake of that reverse and would therefore have provided training and coaching focus in the final stages of preparation.
When assessing Richie McCaw's chances of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy towards the end of October a number of lazy assumptions can be made - that the form of McCaw himself, the priceless ability of Dan Carter to read and control a game, the game breaking ability of the increasingly formidable Ma'a Nonu will make the difference between triumph and yet again falling short. I have no doubt that the contribution of this trio will be crucial, but also feel that the unsung qualities of the redoubtable Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino are just as likely to be the x-factor that finally drags the men in black across the line.
The All Blacks should be good enough to become world champions for the first time in the professional era. But it is possible that they will again fail to deliver. Hopefully, nobody will die in the process and we will all remember that this is just a rugby tournament. But what a rugby tournament, one capable of being remembered as belonging to the Pacific, not just New Zealand. Let the games commence.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
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Wales' lessons to learn in defeat by New Zealand are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards