SHOCK: All Blacks aren’t Chokers

Rugby is more than a sport in New Zealand; it’s a national obsession and borders on being a religion.

There is no country more associated with a sport than New Zealand is with rugby.  India is a nation of cricket fans and, other than beach volleyball and waxing, Brazilians don’t care for much other than football but what neither of those countries, or any other nation, can boast is the sheer percentage of the population that participates in the national sport in New Zealand.

It’s a genuine obsession and with this obsession comes not only excellence but expectations of Dickensian proportions.

Even if you only examined the 24 years since the first rugby world cup, New Zealand has had the best team in the world for the majority of that period and yet, for all their domination,  just one world cup on home soil in 1987.

Those with only a passing interest in the game know about the All Blacks’ failures on the biggest stage.  Those with a slightly higher interest love to talk about how they “peak between world cups”.   And who’s ever had a conversation about rugby world cups without the “c” word being mentioned?

Godwin’s law roughly states that any argument will eventually involve an accusation comparing one of the participants to the nazis.  All Blacks Law should state that any conversation about world cup rugby will eventually (generally less than 5 minutes) involve the words “All Blacks” and “chokers” in the same sentence.

That they’ve under achieved at world cups is without question but are they actually chokers?

1991 World Cup

As New Zealand won the inaugural world cup, we can skip over that and move to the 1991 when they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by eventual winners, Australia.

Scoring two tries to nil, Australia won the world cup semi-final 16-6 in a match that even The Times’ columnist and staunch defender of northern hemisphere rugby, Stephen Jones, refers to as one of the best he’s ever seen.  Tim Horan, who described the first half of that game as the best 40 minutes the team played in a 6 year period, combined with David Campese to score one of the great world cup tries and the Wallabies led for the entire game including being up 13-0 at half-time.

So was that loss due to the All Blacks choking?

In the lead-up to the ‘91 world cup the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup but it was courtesy of a 6-3 victory at Eden Park.  The other game in the two match series was won 21-12 by Australia.   The Wallabies then regained the Bledisloe Cup in 1992 winning the first two matches of the series before New Zealand claimed the third.

At the time of the ’91 world cup, the All Blacks were not the best team in the world and to attribute the loss to choking is an insult to an Australia side which included the likes of Farr-Jones, Lynagh, Campese, Horan, Little, Eales and Kearns.  It was not only one of the great wallaby sides, it was one of the great rugby teams of all time and in 1991 and 1992 they held a 4-2 match record over New Zealand.

1995 World Cup

In 1995 rugby was on the cusp of professionalism and one player, Jonah Lomu, looked like he’d been playing rugby for a living since the day he was born.   Although history has cast Mike Catt in the unfortunate role of Speed Bump #1 in Jonah’s highlight reel, the reality is that Lomu practised the Maori sidestep on opponents from all countries and his powerful runs are the lingering memory of the ’95 world cup.

The final at Ellis Park brought together two proud rugby nations, two hugely physical sides, two inspirational captains – Francois Pienaar and Sean Fitzpatrick – and a host of the game’s greats including Joost Van Der Westhuizen,  Os du Randt, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce.  New Zealand rightly went into the final as favourites but in a tryless encounter played at altitude, Joel Stransky booted the home side to victory.

The All Blacks had been the dominant team of the tournament but came up against one of the great Springbok sides who, in their first world cup, were not only playing at home but playing at altitude and playing in front of Nelson Mandela and 63,000 other passionate South African fans.   Since that final, the All Blacks’ record in South Africa is 12 wins and 10 losses.  If you look only at games at Ellis Park the record is 4-2 in favour of the Boks.

Leaving aside that many in the New Zealand camp suffered food poisoning in the lead up to the final, if losing at altitude in South Africa renders the All Blacks chokers then the label can be applied to every other test playing nation along with the British and Irish Lions.

1999 World Cup

Australia capped off its finest decade in rugby by winning the tournament for a second time in 1999 but it was the mercurial French at their scintillating best who knocked New Zealand out in the semi-finals.

Scoring four tries to New Zealand’s three, France triumphed 43-31 over their more fancied opponents.  Although the All Blacks went into the match as heavy favourites, it is glossing over history to underrate the 1999 French side.  They were the 5 Nations champions in both 1997 and 1998 (both grand slams) and on the All Blacks’ European tour in 2000, they lost to France 42-33.

As for the eventual winners, in the year prior to the tournament the Wallabies achieved their first 3-0 Bledisloe Cup whitewash to win the ’98 tournament.  After losing the opening game of the ‘99 series (though scoring 2 tries to 1) they retained the bledisloe courtesy of a comfortable 28-7 win in Sydney.  Having regained the World Cup later that year, the Wallabies won the Bledisloe cup for the following three years and their match record over New Zealand for that 5 year period was 8-3.

While New Zealand might have been expected to win their semi-final over France, the result was not a complete anomaly and at that time the All Blacks could certainly not lay claim to being the best side in the world.  Few Australian rugby fans would deny they were happy to see New Zealand knocked out of the ’99 world cup but there can be little doubt that the John Eales-led side of the late 90’s and early 00’s had the measure of their trans-Tasman rivals.

2003 World Cup

In 2003 a hugely physical, experienced and clinical England side swept all before them to take the Webb Ellis Cup to the northern hemisphere for the first time.  

Having beaten the All Blacks at Twickenham at the end of 2002, England coach Clive Woodward took his troops on a tour down under in June just a few months before the world cup was due to commence.

In a close match in Wellington the All Blacks’ line wasn’t crossed all game and England were at one stage down to 13 men but Jonny Wilkinson’s boot ensured England recorded their first victory on New Zealand in 30 years winning the game 15-13.  A week later Woodward’s men recorded a 25-14 over the Wallabies in Melbourne to ensure they would go into in the world cup as the team to beat.

In the world cup later that year the All Blacks made light work of their opponents to earn a semi-final against hosts Australia.   The Wallabies’ only try came courtesy of an intercept by Stirling Mortlock but, playing in front of 82,000 fans in Sydney, they put in a clinical performance and deservedly won 22-10.

Including the world cup semi-final loss, the All Blacks record against Australia from 2002-2004 was 4 wins from 7 matches.  However, of those games played on Australian soil the record is 3-1 in favour of the Wallabies.

As in 1999, New Zealand were not knocked out by the best team in the competition but nor were they the best team in the world at the time.  Their loss to Australia in the semi-final cannot be considered an aberration or a result of choking.

2007 World Cup

New Zealand went into the 2007 tournament as heavy favourites but it was their Tri Nations’ rivals, South Africa, who took the cup home for a second time.

For the second time in 8 years New Zealand were knocked out of the tournament by Les Blues leaving the inhabitants of the Land of the Long White Cloud more than a little blue themselves.

Although France were the cup hosts, the quarter-final was played in Cardiff due to France’s opening game loss to the tournament’s surprise team, Argentina.  In a quarter-final that New Zealand fans will remember as much for the refereeing as the shock loss, a spirited French side narrowly won 20-18 to send the All Blacks packing at the earliest stage in their world cup history.

Unlike their previous exits, the 2007 loss can be considered a proper upset.  Out of 5 games played between the two nations in 2006 and 2007, the quarter-final was France’s only victory.  More telling perhaps is that the collective scoreline of the other four games was 173-35 in New Zeland’s favour.

Unlike some European teams, French wins over New Zealand are not complete anomalies but there can be little doubt that the loss in the 2007 world cup was a genuine upset.  Whether this renders them deserving of being labelled chokers is another matter but it is certainly the most difficult result to reconcile with their otherwise proud record in world rugby.

Chokers or Overachievers

While the All Blacks are regarded as world cup chokers, it is generally accepted that the Wallabies are overachievers.  The reality is Australia have twice gone into the game’s biggest tournament with a side that was, at the least, the equal of any team in the tournament and, arguably, actually the strongest and on both occasions they went home world champions.  That is not overachievement; it is simply a better return on expectations than their friends across the Tasman.

Having won two world cups, it is easy to forget that the Wallabies have also actually been the victim of world cup upsets.  In the ’95 and ’07 tournaments, Australia went into their matches against England as favourites but both times found themselves unable to live up to their billing.  Adding their loss to Ireland in the 2011 tournament, the Wallabies have been on the wrong end of three world cup upsets and yet, because of their triumphs in ’91 and ’99, the tag “chokers” is never applied.

Having reviewed the All Blacks’ exits from world cups, the loss in 2007 is the only truly genuine upset.  They might well have been expected to win some or all of the other games which resulted in them going home and the cumulative effect is certainly telling but those losses cannot be considered aberrations.

That the All Blacks have underachieved on rugby’s biggest stage is without question but to label them as chokers denigrates other world cup winners.

That said, a loss to Australia on Sunday would not only send a nation into mourning, it would ensure the  “c” word is plastered on headlines the world over.

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Posted on October 14, 2011, in union. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. choker (noun) – an unfortunate person who is unable to perform effectively because of nervous tension or agitation.

    In comparison to other sports one quality genuine rugby fans have is respect. Calling the All Blacks chokers is a throw away line and deep down in places we don’t like to talk about we know it’s not true. Analysis aside NZ earns respect time and time again. A team that gives everything on the field of battle… and don’t be mistaken for the All Blacks this is a religious battle of biblical proportions.

    If NZ lose on Sunday I have a sneaking suspicion that it wont be due to an unfortunate team unable to perform effectively because of nervous tension or agitation.

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