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Sunday, October 07, 2007

New Zealand fails at the Rugby World Cup! Chokers or mis-timers?

Well, we have to date resisted the urge to post something on rugby. Not because it's not particularly interesting to us, but because we know that there's a good deal to be written on running, cycling and athletics, and because many of our North American readers probably think of rugby as a more random version of American Football! But to those in the USA, you do have a rugby team and in fact, have provided one of the highlights of this World Cup, when your winger, Ngwenya, put his jet shoes on and raced past the South African winger Bryan Habana to score a wonderful try (call it a touchdown!) in a game last weekend! In that moment, Habana moved from being the fastest rugby player in the world to the second fastest!

But, this post is necessary, because it comes after the pre-tournament favourites New Zealand were bundled out of the competition by the French in Cardiff last night. New Zealand, who are the dominant force in world rugby, the team everyone fears and values defeating more than any other, have now failed to win the World Title for 20 years - they won the very first tournament in 1987, and have not done so since. They have been labelled as chokers, accused of peaking between world cups and not getting their timing right. Last night will only add ammunition to this argument.

But we thought this a very interesting topic for discussion and so will do this lone post (for now, you never know what will come up in the future) on rugby!

The problem - too much depth and too much talent

This probably sounds a little bizarre, but my feeling is that New Zealand's primary problem regarding peaking for the major tournament is that they simply have too much talent and the game is too deep in New Zealand. This complicates their lives enormously, because it means that getting the timing right is very very difficult, as I will attempt to explain.

But let me do this using an analogy from running, a sport that I am more familiar with.

Peaking and periodizing training - it's all about the timing

Every coach and athlete is aware of the fact that any athlete can only be at the top of their form for a limited period. This is why training programmes must be periodized and athletes aim to peak at specific events. Often, this training is periodized over many years. So for example, an Olympic athlete will begin planning in 2009 and aim to be in peak condition in 2012 for the London Olympics. Or, will have hopefully begun planning in 2005 and will be in peak shape for Beijing next year!

The same applies to rugby. Any player must ensure that their training and physical conditioning are planned so that their performances are peaked at the right time - the World Cup. This is even more of a problem for rugby players than it is for runners, because rugby is played at a competitive level for 11 months of the year these days. Therefore, there is never really a structured base or rest period. Players move straight from one competition to the next.

Given this situation, it stands to reason that whichever nation has the greatest talent and depth of talent, together with the supporting structures to find that talent, will perform the best immediately after a world cup. Why? Because the focus on competition means that the country with the talent will respond fastest. In the meantime, other countries begin the process of building, finding talent, changing personnel, looking ahead. In New Zealand, the game is so massive and so widely followed that the All Blacks are able to find a world class team and structure almost instantly. Not so for Australia (small player numbers), South Africa (politics and infighting) and the Northern hemisphere nations (different club structures).

New Zealand - finding the talent early

So now, in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup, New Zealand immediately adopt the position of the best team in the world. All of a sudden, the best players in the world are in New Zealand, because the rest of the world are in a state of 'limbo'. The problem for New Zealand is that they now have to manage these world class, unstoppable players for FOUR YEARS. And we've discussed how difficult that it is - how do you ensure that a player remains on form for 4 years given the long season and infrequent rests? More important, how do you manage the co-ordination and integration of these individuals into a team, given the evolution of tactics and strategy over the coming years? Again, very difficult to do.

To return to the analogy, it is the same as discovering the world's fastest 100m athlete the week after the Olympic Games. You now have this incredible talent, but you know that in four years' time, he needs to be at the same, if not a slightly better level. So you have a problem - long term planning is needed.

The problem for rugby in New Zealand is that they cannot plan long term, because they are under pressure to win, year round. And so what happens is that these incredibly talented players are developed rapidly. The result is that New Zealand are an absolutely incredible team between World Cups. Look at New Zealand in 2004 and 2005 - they were magnificent. They could even send a "B-team" and win the Grand Slam in Europe. They crushed the Lions. They had the best players in the world in almost every position. No one thought they would ever be beaten.

But the passage of time erodes this gap, as the rest of the world catches up and the All Blacks become increasingly predictable and tired. Eventually, you develop a situation where you have what I would call a "legacy" team - a group of players whose reputation precedes that of the team. We all marvel at the All Blacks, because they have Richie McCaw and Carter and they are the 'best'. The problem is, we don't think of them TODAY - all we can remember is how good they were in their prime. And make no mistake, the All Blacks still have some of the best players in the world, but do they evolve with the game? I don't think so, and that is a consequence of winning in between world cups - the old "learning from success" concept.

Being the best is a barrier to innovation and evolution

Few people innovate when they are winning - learning from failure is rare enough, learning from success is incredibly rare. So having discovered these incredible players in every position, the drive to develop subsides, and the process stops. Most of all, the team doesn't always keep track of the evolution of the game - New Zealand was finding success playing a certain way, and in the mean time, the game was changing. It became even more defensive minded than ever, and teams like South Africa were working out that you stood a better chance of winning when you DIDN'T have the ball. Rush defence was perfected, and South Africa, in particular, were happy to give the ball away, knowing that their set pieces and defence would put pressure on the opposition. The result is that what works in 2004 won't work in 2005 or 2006, and so on. But when you're the best, you are less likely to see that, because you feel that everything you do is working. And therefore, you fail to respond to the trends, the evolution of the game. The result, early exit...

A bridge too far, a year too many

I realise that hindsight is 20-20, but I will maintain that I have felt nervous about this All Black team for a long time. I still did think that they would win this tournament, I confess, but the truth is, the World Cup needed to be in 2005 for them. The reality is that if you picked a World 15 today, very few All Blacks would make it ON FORM. You might still be tempted to pick some of them, but if you are really honest, there are now better fly-halves (Hernandez), better centres, better loose forwards and so on. In fact, I would even suggest that a World 15 would contain more Argentinians than All Blacks!

I still think that New Zealand are an awesome team, and I'm sad they are out, because part of me feels they deserve to claim a world title as reward for being comfortably the best in the world for the last 4 years. But sport doesn't work that way, unfortunately, and they just could not maintain the levels of 2 years ago. If the World Cup was held every 2 years, the All Blacks would win it ever time, because they unveil and develop talent so quickly. Unfortunately for them, this is the problem - too much talent, too quickly, and then holding that talent for long enough is impossible.

Are they chokers? I don't think so - a choker would be someone who should win, because they are the best, but fail to do so because they are mentally fragile. I don't think that is the case here - I think New Zealand just get caught and passed on the finish line!

So maybe we all got blinded by the legacy of the 2004 and 2005 All Blacks.