TOKYO — The funny thing about World Cups is that they help the All Blacks find their inner Zen.
It’s not easy to imagine but a Buddhist-like calm has descended upon the All Blacks in Japan as it did in England four years ago.
It hasn’t always been so, but since they saw three of their out-halves injured in consecutive tests at the 2011 tournament and a bloke they reckoned wasn’t quite up to Super Rugby drop into the final and kick the winning goal for them, they have come to realise that World Cups rarely make sense.
They found out in 2011 that anything is possible – like their captain could play the entire tournament with a broken foot and keep it a secret or that two of their best outside backs could go out on a full-scale bender two nights before the quarter-final and not keep it a secret.
So crazy doesn’t faze the All Blacks these days at World Cups. They love a mantra, a buzz phrase to encapsulate their approach and for World Cups they talk of expecting the unexpected.
Which is handy given how the build-up to today’s tournament-defining opening game against the Springboks has shaped. It has thrown up a few issues.
There’s been bad luck, false allegations, a touch of the weird and a dash of the surreal. But through it all, the All Blacks — players and coaches — have taken it all as if they are the Dude from the Coen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski.
It’s all good man, seems to be the vibe, as if they arrived in Japan in some kind of transcendental state that cannot be budged by any drama however big or small.
The bad luck was the discovery of late on-set concussion for the squad’s baby blindside flanker Luke Jacobson.
The 22-year-old was the genuine surprise selection, seeing off competition from the more experienced Vaea Fifita and Shannon Frizell, only to be sent home from Japan a few days after arriving – his World Cup over before the All Blacks even made it into Tokyo after their training camp in Kashiwa.
Jacobson, who was plagued by concussion last year, felt the delayed effects of a head knock he incurred in the test against Tonga on September 7 and the decision was made, that while he was deemed 98 per cent fit, to send him home.
That decision sparked one former journalist into life back in New Zealand, when he claimed that Sonny Bill Williams was also coming home due to a persistent calf injury.
Such is the way of these things, the story grew arms and legs and it was front page news, not posed so much as a question, but written as fact that the All Blacks were going to be two men down before a game had been played.
It wasn’t true, as Williams was with his team-mates training the house down in sweltering heat of 35 degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity.
To have hit the ice-baths only to read that the wheels of their campaign had supposedly all but fallen off, could have set some kind of fire raging within the All Blacks, but rather than deliver one of his withering one-line put-downs, coach Steve Hansen shrugged when he was asked about Williams and the fervent media reaction and suggested it was no biggie and that these things happen.
Nothing it seems can break the Zen-like calm – not even the slightly weird claim by South Africa’s forwards coach Matt Proudfoot that he was expecting to see the injured Brodie Retallick play, or the equally bizarre proclamation by his fellow assistant Mzwandile Stick, backed by head coach Rassie Erasmus a few days later, that referees were no longer favouring the All Blacks now that they are not the number one side in the world.
Again Hansen didn’t rise to the bait, other than to put his respect for Erasmus on record and then say he didn’t support the tactic of so overtly putting pressure on referees.
There was a time in the past when such comments would have incensed the All Blacks coach, but not now: not at this tournament where the All Blacks have honestly given the impression they are happy-go-lucky tourists and it’s just a coincidence that they are here at the same time that the World Cup is being played.
The mood is so jovial that when All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster was asked to sum up in one word how he would describe Erasmus, he replied: “Do you mean put a label on him?”.
When the interviewer said yes, Foster replied: “South African head coach.”
And this is how it is going to be with the All Blacks in Japan — they will expect anything and everything to happen and not blink when it does.
They will believe that nothing is impossible and embrace all the differences Japan brings and the craziness of a World Cup.
And above all else, they have made it clear they will relish being the team that carries rugby’s flag in Japan.
The locals have warmly welcomed all 20 teams but it is images of the All Blacks which are plastered on the walls of Shinjuku Station in Japan.
It is the All Blacks who are on the millions of TVs across the Tokyo rail network, promoting this that and the next thing and it is the All Blacks who are the one team that everyone in Japan knows whether they are aware of the World Cup or not.
If there is one thing to take from the last 10 days or so, it is that the All Blacks will not be overwhelmed by the occasion when they meet the Boks in Yokohama.
They have settled in Japan like it is a second home, loved the attention and let the occasional bouts of madness from elsewhere wash over them.
This is how they were in 2015 ahead of the World Cup quarter-final when they unleashed Hell on a French team that frankly didn’t know what hit it.
It’s a stretch to imagine that such a hiding awaits the Boks but the All Blacks are in a great headspace and it is unlikely South Africa can do anything Saturday to surprise them or spoil their mood.