NZ leaders relish second shot
Wellington - Coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw intend to make the best of an unprecedented second chance when they lead New Zealand into the Rugby World Cup.
Henry was head coach and McCaw captain of the All Blacks team which lost to France in the quarter-finals of the 2007 tournament, New Zealand's earliest World Cup exit.
After winning the inaugural tournament in 1987 - the only other time the Cup has been staged in New Zealand - the All Blacks fell in the final in 1995 and the semi-finals in 1991, 1999 and 2003. None of the coaches or captains of the four previously unsuccessful All Blacks teams remained in their post for the next tournament.
After the 2007 defeat and despite considerable public opposition, the New Zealand Rugby Union reappointed Henry and co-coaches Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen and, with less resistance, retained McCaw as captain.
In the ensuing four years the reprieved management partnership has amassed conspicuous success: holding the Bledisloe Cup through four annual series' with Australia and winning the Tri-Nations tournament twice. They have completed two Grand Slam tours against the four Home Unions and have sustained Henry's winning percentage as coach at more than 80 percent.
They must now bear the greatest weight that falls on any New Zealand sportsperson: the weight of a nation's hopes that 24 years of fruitless searching for a second World Cup will end.
With each intervening tournament since the first, the mass of that suppressed hope has grown and it will be greater this year than before, greater also because these main protagonists have tried previously and failed.
Henry is enigmatic. Before the 2007 World Cup failure his public demeanor seemed surly and morose. He was instructed after his unpopular reappointment to loosen up and has done, though he can sometimes come across as condescending.
McCaw is more readable. He isn't immume to the pressure he is under to deliver a World Cup win at home, but he is resigned to what is ahead of him.
"Wherever the World Cup is, it's the same sort of pressure," McCaw said. "I think it's just exciting. If you are going to choose all the places to play a World Cup, you're going to choose your home country. That's the way I look at it.
"It's not an easy thing to win so we are going to have to do it right. But to have your friends and family and fans to get a feel of it, too, will be pretty special."
McCaw is one of 10 remaining All Blacks who contested the 2007 World Cup, one of five who will play in a third world tournament. He sees that as an advantage.
"You know what you are in for and know what to expect," he said. "A lot of us who were there last time, we have played a lot more rugby and been through a lot more experiences.
"That doesn't guarantee anything but ... for the games that will be the tough ones, you know what you need to do to get the result. Having been through that, hopefully the coaches and players who have been there before will be able to make sure we get it right."
New Zealand will start the tournament as World Cup favourites as they have in almost all of the past five tournaments, although the odds might have been lessened by their losses to South Africa (18-5) and Australia (25-20) in the last two matches of this season's Tri-Nations series.
The All Blacks have never gone into a World Cup on the back of two losses, in fact they have only once before lost the last match before the Cup; in 1999. The feeling since the loss to the Wallabies on the weekend has been that it may have alleviated rather than increased the pressure they are under.
"Going back over the history, there's no blueprint that winning a Tri-Nations is the recipe for winning a Rugby World Cup," Henry said. "Hopefully if there was any complacency in this group, it's well gone now."
McCaw is a key figure and flyhalf Daniel Carter another in New Zealand's campaign. Neither is replaceable. McCaw has no direct understudy and if New Zealand loses Carter, who has scored a world record 1 219 points in 83 tests, his replacement is a six-Test novice.
Carter's performances this year, in both Super Rugby and Test matches, have been inconsistent and have even suggested, to some, his powers are waning. But he remains pivotal and not obviously cowed by pressure.
"The excitement of the support we have in New Zealand far exceeds the pressure and expectation," he said. "That's why we just love playing in New Zealand.
"To have something like the World Cup in our own backyard is great and I know the players can't wait for it."
Beyond McCaw and Carter, New Zealand's squad is well rounded. It's front row is strong and it has vast experience in the second row where Brad Thorn and Ali Williams are veterans. It's scrum is powerful but its lineout patchy.
It has in McCaw, Keiran Read and Jerome Kaino a formidable backrow but lacks quality backup if any of those players is sidelined. Read is an early concern, after limping off in the Tri-Nations match against Australia.
Piri Weepu is the best of the All Blacks' three scrumhalves and, beyond Carter, the midfield combination of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith - the most-experienced in New Zealand's history - is outstanding.
Wingers Zac Guildford, Isaia Toeava and Cory Jane were chosen for their versatility more than their finishing ability and are not the best New Zealand can offer. Fullback Mils Muliaina may be nearing the end of his career after 97 Tests.
Previous World Cups have pointed out New Zealand's vulnerability to pressure in knockout matches but Henry and McCaw are confident their experience of an earlier failure will help steal their team against that weakness.
"One of the special qualities of New Zealand rugby is the expectations of the New Zealand public, and I don't think there is any greater expectation in rugby than the expectations on the All Blacks," Henry said. "That's why they have been so successful. They are the most successful side in the history of professional sport and that's something we should be very proud of. "What happens in the next eight weeks is going to define this team."