“We choke a lot…we’re great chokers” said former All Black wing Stu Wilson on Sky Sports Radio’s Big Sports Breakfast in the run up to the first Bledisloe Cup match of the season. The Canterbury Crusaders defeat to the Queensland Reds in the Super 15 final saw the Kiwi populace feel those cold white hands tighten around their collective throats as their media searched for parallels with every other unsuccessful Rugby World Cup year. A comprehensive stuffing of the Wallabies in Eden Park saw the Kiwi media revert to type with one particular Welsh-loving Kiwi hack declaring that the World Cup was already in the bag.
It’s easy to understand where people are coming from when they bring up the serial choker tag when describing All Black World Cup failure but the success in recent years of the Crusaders and the Kiwi rugby league side suggests that New Zealand teams aren’t chokers.
Choking in sport is usually associated with tennis players, golfers, or sprinters. Think back through the pantheon of choking greats and the names Greg Norman, Jean Van de Velde, Jana Navotna, and Asafa Powell all come to mind.
While there’s no doubt that individuals in a team environment do choke, it’s rare that their shortcomings come to the public’s attention unless they play in a specialist position, like out half, hooker, or tight head prop. Matt Giteau missing an easy penalty at Murrayfield to hand a victory to Scotland in 2009 comes to mind, and who could forget rugby league commentator Eddie Waring shrieking “he’s a poor lad” as Don Fox lay shattered on the sodden Wembley turf having missed a last minute conversion which would have given Wakefield victory over Leeds in the 1968 Challenge Cup final.
In the aftermath of Jana Novotna’s capitulation to Steffi Graff in the 1993 Wimbledon ladies singles final her coach, Hana Mandlikova, explained her collapse by saying that sometimes “you can be too intelligent.” In thinking too much about what she was doing she focused “consciously” on something that she should have been doing “unconsciously,” or in Bounce author Matthew Syed’s words, “choking is a neural glitch that occurs when individuals are under pressure when they find themselves explicitly monitoring skills that would be better executed automatically.”
When the Leinster scrum came undone in the first half of this year’s Heineken Cup Final against Northampton all eyes were on Leinster tight head prop, Mike Ross. Their scrum, which had been rock solid all season, was demolished by the Northampton front row leading to a ripple effect throughout the entire team. They forced everything, dropped everything, and got nothing as they tried to find a way into the game. Northampton went in at half time 16 points to the good.
40 minutes later Leinster were Heineken Cup Champions for the second time in three years after an incredible turnaround which saw their scrum, led by Ross, dominating Northampton. How was this possible? At half time Greg Feek, Leinster’s scrum coach and former All Black prop, using his iPad, replayed a number of the scrums, showed the Leinster front row what was happening, and told Ross to bind closer to his hooker. Afterwards Feek said that all that was wrong was that Ross was probably thinking too much and trying too hard instead of doing what he had done all season. This makes some sense as Ross is known to have a bigger brain than the average prop forward. To right the wrongs of the first half took guts and it’s not pushing it to say that Ross, along with Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, is the most important member of the Ireland World Cup squad. It was an astonishing recovery. After the match the temptation was to say that Northampton had choked, but in hindsight they were simply over powered by a better side. If any team choked at all that day it was Leinster
New Zealand’s status as the Brazil of rugby has seen it continually conferred as Rugby World Cup favourites since the inaugural tournament in 1987 and explains why people are always surprised when they are knocked out. But similar to Brazil there have been times when their form, or how they have been set up by their coaches hasn’t justified the favouritism. This may be unfathomable to the typical New Zealander who thinks that the All Blacks have a divine right to win the World Cup but a flash back through every Kiwi World Cup defeat since 1991 shows little choking and a number of instances where they just weren’t the best side in the world at that point and time.
In 1991 New Zealand were beaten at Lansdowne Road by the eventual winners, Australia. The Wallabies had the game in the bag by half time after two fine tries by Tim Horan and David Campese. It was only their second defeat since winning the final in 1987 but there was a dourness and arrogance about them that led the Irish public to side with the Wallabies who didn’t put a foot wrong off the pitch in the run up to the game. The memory of John Eales and a number of other Wallabies signing autographs on Dublin’s Grafton Street still sticks in the memory. It was a year too late for that All Black vintage.
If ever a side didn’t get what they deserved, it was the All Blacks in 1995. There’s no doubt that they were the best side in the world. That they lost to the Springboks in the final at Ellis Park still sticks in the craw, and I’m inclined to give a lot of credence to the food poisoning conspiracy theory. They were simply unlucky.
It’s tempting to say that the second half collapse against France at Twickenham in 1999 was a collective choke but a recent viewing of that match revealed that the sheer power and very questionable aggression of the French forwards simply pulverised the All Black pack in the second half. After the 1997 tour of South Africa New Zealand’s forward play declined and didn’t recover until Graham Henry took over. The All Blacks turned up at Twickenham thinking that Super Rugby forward play was enough to get them home, but the fact that the All Blacks weren’t able to look after themselves when things got dirty in the dark and French fingers started to find their way into Kiwi eyes suggested otherwise. They had gone soft.
The 2003 defeat to an average Wallabies side is perhaps the hardest to explain. Carlos Spencer, the Kiwi fly half, was like a rabbit in the headlights and his performance seemed to affect the entire side. From the time Stirling Mortlock scored an intercept try, courtesy of Spencer’s headless chicken impression, the All Blacks never looked like getting anything out of the game. It was a dead performance and the one failure most deserving of being labelled a “choke.” The All Black pack were still a long way off where they needed to be as evidenced by a six man England scrum keeping them at bay in Wellington earlier that season. England were more than deserving winners of the final against Australia and would have won at a canter if André Watson had allowed them to scrummage.
New Zealand were the best side in the world in 2007 but a combination of bad luck and arrogance did for them in the quarter final against France in Cardiff. Nobody could have foreseen both Dan Carter and his back up, Nick Evans, getting injured. Wayne Barnes may have missed a forward pass for Yannick Jauzion’s try but the New Zealand public would have been better off asking why first choice lock Chris Jack was a substitute, and what a centre of Aaron Mauger’s experience and nous was doing sitting in the stands wearing a suit when he was possibly the best candidate to knock over a drop goal in the dying moments. It defies belief that Graham Henry persisted with a rotation system into the knock out stages and didn’t pick his best side against France, a team who have a history of upsetting the All Blacks.
It’s time to stop using the term “choke” as a catch all for the shortcomings of the All Blacks at the World Cup. Instead, phrases like “weren’t good enough,”… “unfortunate”… “food poisoned” or “set up to fail” will do just fine.