Winning, it seems, could come with a health warning, writes Brendan O’Brien
Sports may be rife with illegal substances but the endorphins released by the whiff of success, that sweet high, remain the biggest hit even if too much can lead to unexpected complications.
Warning: “Take in selective doses. Side effects could include arrogance and complacency and leave the user prone to an unexpected kick in the pants. In the event of overdoing it, take a long hard look in the mirror.”
Characters as diverse as John Toshack and John Wooden have warned about the dangers of being too damned hot on the field of play. The legendary American basketball coach pontificated back in the day about how getting it all your own way all the time can breed envy and distrust, give root to overconfidence and dilute the appreciation that comes with breasting the tape.
It’s unlikely Kieran Read would see it that way this week.
The All Blacks skipper is the best No. 8 in world rugby, a two-time World Cup winner, a centurion and former world player of the year who assumed the armband from Richie McCaw three years ago.
The world champions have continued to dominate the global game under his watch, even with the retirement of a clutch of key players in 2015.
None of which counts for much right now.
Read seems to be taking flak from all angles after the team’s surprise loss at home to South Africa in the Rugby Championship last Saturday. Why didn’t he call rank and signal for the drop goal late on when they trailed by two? Why did they turn down penalties earlier in the second half? And never mind that Beauden Barrett might as well have been kicking a rapidly-deflating balloon.
Why, Kieran? Why? So don’t tell Read that losing has its upside.
It’s not even that such nit-picking marks the extent of it. Footage of the Kiwi ‘shed’ post-game showed the captain shaking hands with teammates while passing by Anton Lienart-Brown who had a pass intercepted for a try shortly after half-time. A ‘snub’ some suggested, prompting the team’s media man to respond with a tweet about ‘fake news’.
Read was even taken to task earlier this week by an eagle-eyed Joe Bloggs who posted footage of an attempted ruck clearout 15 minutes from time when he appeared to lead with a forearm to the head and neck area of Francois Low. And on it goes... If victory wipes out many a black mark then defeat can uproot all sorts and escalate venial sins into the realm of the mortal.
Wellington last weekend was New Zealand’s fourth loss since lifting the Webb Ellis in Twickenham just over three years ago. That still translates into an 85.7% win ratio. They still have a unique spread and depth of talent across the park, experience to burn, X-factor all over, a highly-experienced and capable staff and that aura that starts with the black jersey.
But the Springboks — like Australia, the Lions and Ireland before them — have shown us that they can be discommoded by a rush defence, knocked from their stride by a concerted commitment to compete at the breakdown and that you need to keep your eyes open for opportunities and take them when and how they arise.
All of which only buys you the ticket to the raffle.
You still might need Beauden Barrett to have an off day with the boot and you will certainly need to be at the absolute summit of your own game to profit from any decent dollop of luck. Oh, and Ronan O’Gara’s assertion last week about northern hemisphere teams being better than their southern counterparts in defence clearly holds water.
Some of the defending in Wellington and in the Gold Coast for Australia-Argentina was comical. The All Blacks alone have now conceded eight tries in their last two games. A small sample size but one that gets magnified in the petri dish of defeat. It has prompted Stuart Barnes, for one, to suggest the All Blacks need to rein in the effervescence a tad and tune up on the ‘D’.
So what does it mean for Ireland?
There is, as of today, less than one year to go until the World Cup kicks off in Japan so the staining of the favourites’ cloak of near-invincibility is as timely as it is welcome for a tournament that has been dominated by the Kiwis of late and one which is still short of well-polished, well-balanced contenders to the throne.
Joe Schmidt’s side will, barring a bizarre sequence of events, face either the All Blacks or the Springboks in a quarter-final: The former surely the better for some of the recent lessons learned and the latter buoyed by the belief their win last week will have instilled so that first-ever semi-final looks distinctly trickier this week.
The All Blacks will still expect to win their remaining two Rugby Championship games while an England side listing dangerously under Eddie Jones should be accounted for in Twickenham in November. Even so, the wound inflicted by the Boks six days ago will still feel raw when New Zealand trot out at the Aviva Stadium to face a side that had their number in Chicago and now sits second in the rankings.
Winning won’t breed any qualms that day. On either side.
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