Perhaps the biggest single reason why the All Blacks seldom lose is their constant allergy to high praise. Some nations can be heard still mentioning a good Test win years later but New Zealand have already consigned Saturday’s thrashing of France to history. As their head coach Steve Hansen keeps warning his squad, it will be scant consolation if they slip up against South Africa this Saturday.
Richie McCaw, who will set yet another record when he leads his team out for the 12th time at a World Cup, and Dan Carter need little prodding but a sprinkling of the side to face the Springboks are sampling their first World Cup. Picking up the paper to find his opposite number Heyneke Meyer hailing the current All Blacks as “the best team that has ever played the game” is the most worrying headline Hansen could possibly read.
Hence his deliberate references, having confirmed his semi-final lineup, to the fear of defeat, the head-clutching horror of the third-place play-off and the possibility of a Springbok ambush at Twickenham. “He’s a cunning wee devil, Heyneke,” noted Hansen. “He has been praising us all week: while I know he means some of it, they’re getting ready to rip our heads off. Externally everybody has got a little carried away and made some outrageous statements. If we go lapping up all the praise we won’t be in the right mental state to play.”
Not since the publication of Lynne Truss’s punctuation guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves have there been more references to full stops and starting again. New Zealand have had enough intense battles with South Africa to know another 60-point stuffing is unrealistic but Hansen does not want his players losing sight of the knockout imperative that helped inspire the Millennium Stadium fireworks.
“If you want to play in the final you either stand up and be counted or you go home,” continued the head coach. “Or, even worse, you’ve got to play in that other game [the third-place play-off] and you don’t want to do that. We went through the pool stages and you blokes were telling us we were struggling. That was good, it gave us a little edge and we played very well.”
The presence of McCaw alone, set to win his 147th cap, should eradicate any danger of complacency. Memories of 2007 have not been entirely erased and New Zealand have yet to win a World Cup staged outside their own country. Hansen rightly regards McCaw as “one of the great leaders of world rugby” and counts himself lucky to have coached the flanker since his early days with Canterbury. “The crucial thing he’s managed to do throughout his career is keep evolving. When he first started the big thing he could do was pinch ball at the breakdown. Now he’s a complete rugby player. He’s a lineout forward, he can catch and pass, that’s a testament to his ability to want to be a better player every day. That fits right in with our ethos … we want to be a better team than we were the day before. He’s a living example of that.”
Not everyone in the All Black XV can boast similar experience, particularly the new loosehead Joe Moody who starts following injuries to Tony Woodcock and Wyatt Crockett. Moody used to be a wrestler in the 96kg class and made a conspicuous impact as a replacement in Cardiff .Picking him was described as “a no-brainer” by a suitably impressed Hansen.
Otherwise it will be the same black-shirted gladiators with a renewed sense of purpose. “If you’re going into a fight, it’s a stupid man who doesn’t fear the guy he’s fighting,” stressed Hansen. “That fear heightens everything and makes sure all your emotions are in the right place so you can deliver the performance you need.
“While you respect people there is a fear factor: if you don’t win you don’t get the prize you want, which is to go to the final. Heyneke’s praised us a lot this week and that’s a tactic. Behind closed doors I don’t think he’ll be doing that with his team. We’ve got to turn up with our A game and a little bit more.”
It will help if the French referee Jérôme Garcès can provide an authoritative performance but Hansen, either way, will not be criticising the official in public. “I’ve always said it’s a really tough game to referee at the moment and we’ve got to find ways of making it simpler for them,” he said, expressing his sympathy for South Africa’s beleaguered Craig Joubert. “I don’t think it’s Craig that’s the problem but the system. World Rugby has to fix that problem. If he could have used the technology then we’d have got a different decision. End of story.”