World Cup warning - it could happen to the All Blacks, too

Canon Rugby in Focus: The Black Caps' defeat in London wasn't this country's first World Cup horror show - and it probably won't be the last.

Mum rang to ask if I was okay.

“Yeah,” I replied, a little bit confused, “why, what’s up?”

“Well it seems like the sky has fallen in here,” she said. “The news is just full of it. So I’m just checking you’re okay.”

It was a few days after the All Blacks had lost France in the 1999 World Cup. I'd been there, working, and had moved to Cardiff for the All Blacks bronze medal match against South Africa, a game they lost.

The world, it seemed, had imploded back home and the mood didn’t improve when the All Blacks returned home having finished fourth.

John Hart’s horse was booed and spat at in Christchurch as the All Blacks coach carried the can for the dramatic second half capitulation at Twickenham.

It was a loss scored into our rugby psyche, but it wasn’t alone.

In ‘91 my mates and I had a basketball scrimmage organised for the morning we played Australia in the World Cup semifinal.

We turned up, sat on the cool court floor and chatted about Campo and JK, and how different it might have been if the game wasn’t on a Sunday and Michael Jones had played and Terry Wright wasn’t out injured.

Then we left, no ball bounced, no basket shot.

Four years later there was a champagne breakfast organised for the wee hours after the final in Johannesburg.

It was left, untouched, on our flat dining table. I slipped back into bed and my now wife asked if I was okay. I had no words and took no solace in the fact that their win capped a remarkable day for South Africa.

Later that day we polished off the booze in a wake, of sorts. All it needed was for someone to sing The Parting Glass. I’ve always liked Mark Seymour’s version.

I was reminded of this when a mate posted to Facebook a few hours after the Blackcaps' heart-breaking loss to England in the cricket ODI World Cup final.

“My wife asks me gently if I’m over the Cricket World Cup result yet,” he wrote. “I’m still not over the Rugby World Cup result from ‘95. So the answer my dear is no.”

I know how he feels. ‘95 hurt.

That loss in ‘99 was my first live defeat as a reporter. When Jonah Lomu scored early in the second half and the All Blacks moved to a 14 point lead, I politely told Alison Kervin, from The Times and sitting beside me in the pres box, that “we had this in the bag now”.

That bag burst in spectacular French fashion.

Four years later and George Gregan was reminding us all that we had “four more years” to wait again. If only he’d been right.

Instead, 2007 was the nadir. The All Blacks out of the World Cup in the quarterfinal. Mum didn’t ring that time, but a mate sent me a text.

We’d caught up for dinner in Cardiff the night before the match. He and his wife were on a tour, following the team, and having a wonderful time.

I warned them that it was dangerous to base the success of their trip on how well the All Blacks went in the playoffs.

I knew, first hand, how fickle fate could be.

So he sent me a text, brutal in its bluntness. “You didn’t have to be so (expletive deleted) prophetic.”

Again, I had no words.

I am surprised, even now, that the New Zealand Rugby Union (as it was then) had the courage to reappoint Graham Henry after that historic departure.

Blood was shed following defeats in the 95 final and ‘99 and ‘03 semifinals, so I was truly expecting heads to roll after the Cardiff catastrophe.

Retention was a masterstroke, as we all now know, as the All Blacks under Henry at last won the World Cup again in 2011 and backed it up with success in 2015 under Steve Hansen

A three-peat is in the offing in Japan in a few months, but it is no foregone conclusion.

There are so many things that can influence a result. Just ask the All Blacks. Food poisoning in 1995, poor officiating in 2007, injuries and religious beliefs in 1991, bad tactics and players not match fit (2007 again) and then a poor set piece in 2003.

And that doesn’t take into account how well the opposition might play - think the Aussies in 1991 and South Africa in 1995.

Add to that a bit of luck falling either way and you get the picture.

The Blackcaps know that.

It is cruel and unfair to single out moments but if not for Trent Boult stepping on the boundary rope, an outrageous case of over throws, and a bizarre rule to determine the winner, the Blackcaps would be world champions.

Such are the vagaries of sport.

It’s a timely reminder to the All Blacks and their fans ahead of the World Cup in Japan.

Sometimes the best team doesn’t win, sometimes not even the most deserving.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.

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