Max Johns - Armchair halfback, Dunedin

Monday, June 21, 2004

Pig-headed idiot worse than the half-witted, unskilled loser thugs that he coaches

There's something about the All Blacks and World Cup holders. Although it's been four tournaments since we've actually won the damn thing, we can at least boast victories over every other World Champion team in the first year of their tenure (leaving New Zealand's two unbeaten years on top all the more impressive). The All Blacks' fine decimation of the world champion English has truly made my week, even though it's only Monday. Not only were the scorelines better than we'd dared to hope for (36-3 represented the biggest whipping ever taken by a World Cup-holding team), but the nature of the contest had just the right level of bitterness between teams to make victory even sweeter. And both teams have returned to their roots - the All Blacks, after a few years playing a game based around the backs and arguably being slightly behind the world's 8-ball, based play around the forwards and never really looked like going backwards. The English, after a few years on top of the rugby world, have reverted back to their crumbly game-pattern we fondly remember, and off the field have rediscovered the one thing they'll never be beaten at - whinging like little girls.

Firstly, it's good to see a bit of biff back in the game. About bloody time. Pity that none of the commentators who were calling for it in John Mitchell's ruckless days have been brave enough to say so (I'm looking at you, Phil Gifford), but boots have sprigs and hands have knuckles for a reason.

Secondly, Sir Clive Woodward is a prize chump. He may not have had much practice at being completely rolled by a superior team between 1998 and this year, but it's time he learnt how to lose. Before this series he coached a team still generally respected in this part of the world, even after a shithouse third placing in the Six Nations. Kiwis don't like the way the English won the World Cup - deliberatly slow rugby with a near distain for try-scoring - but we accepted that it worked, and that the white and red forwards were bloody good. Better than us, even. And that admission hurt. Our one comfort was that our approach to the game was, on some sort of subjective scale, better. There's something about using all fifteen players and grouping points in fives and sevens, rather than threes, that appeals to the true fan, we limply claimed. Forget that, Woodward said in classic British style, judge us on our results.

Gladly. Three points to 36 in Dunedin: you lose. Twelve to 36 in Auckland: you lose. Eight tries against, zero for: you lose. One red card and a five-week suspension - both for unnecessarily violent behaviour - to one yellow given for a technical foul: you lose. Two games to none: you lose. Time for Clive to stiffen that upper lip, concede that things didn't go his way and look forward to next week's replay of last year's cup final against Aussie, right? Apparently not.

It seems that a combined 72-15 trashing doesn't prove that there is a serious difference between teams. Woodward still thinks the English team is the better. He wasn't even coy about it. "I still think England is a better team", he said. That's 'arrogant tosser' territory at the best of times, but coming on the back of his smug "look at the scoreboard" build-up, it's something closer to 'straight-faced denial of an ass-whipping from someone who writes, reads and believes his own press'.

Fantastically, Lawrence Dallaglio - a terrible choice for captain, given his inability to handle pressure and his love of the rough stuff - left his last NZ press conference early and in a huff. With a few empty threats concerning the Lions tour here next year, he was up and gone. Woodward should've followed, but was too busy trying to justify Simon Shaw's attack on Keith Robinson (just a wee "knee between the shoulder blades to let him know he was there", you see), complaining about the resultant red card, blindly claiming that the All Black defence - which now has England in a three match tryless streak - was weak, and insulting the match officials' impartiality.

It's bad enough that he brought out a team not good enough to even test a newly combined All Black team with six days' training under its belt. It's even worse that he responded to that first loss by telling everyone that his team was going to lessen their use of self-control. What a stupid thing to do - everyone knows that you're meant to up the aggro on the quiet. But when a coach can't accept two thrashings for what they are, that's the worst thing of all. (Funnily enough, England's second stringers went down to the Maori team over the weekend in a ridiculously close Churchill Cup final and, despite having possibly had a fairly converted penalty that would have won the game disallowed, were a fine example of how to handle defeat. It's a great time to be from the colonies.)

Thirdly, and focusing on New Zealand for a moment, Graham Henry and co. are doing a fine job so far (although John Mitchell should never have gone - we've all learnt a lesson about pissing off the media from that one). From what we've seen, this season has the chance to be one of the finest possible in a non-World Cup year (which, let's be honest, tend to yield our better vintages). But as much we need the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cups to stay here, there's something about beating teams that really, really deserve it. That's why I can't help thinking that the Lions tests in 2005 are going to be the next time supporting the All Blacks is this much fun.