New Zealand and South Africa have won five of the eight Rugby World Cup titles between them. Ahead of the semi-finals — and a potential NZ v SA final —sat down with Munster duo, Kiwi Alby Mathewson and Springbok Arno Botha, to talk World Cups, Test dreams, beer and chocolate.
COR: Alby, you were born in 1985, so a bit too young to remember New Zealand’s first World Cup win in 1987. That means you were 24 by the time you first saw New Zealand win the World Cup in 2011 — how was that?
AM: I remember watching the 1995 final actually, New Zealand was easily the best team in the World Cup... Agree with that Arno?
AB: I was just four, so I can’t really remember it!
AM: Well, they were easily the best team, but in South Africa, with everything that was going on, and how a home crowd can lift a team...
COR: Did it feel like the All Blacks were cursed? ’91, ’95, ’99, ’03, ’07 — and only one final?
AM: After 2007... have you watched the Richie McCaw documentary? He talks about how much they learned from that tournament, and how to deal with the pressure mentally, they got a guy, Gilbert Enoka, in (mental skills coach), and he’s unreal.
To be that consistent since, a lot of it is mental. Once you’re pro, everyone’s the same physically, it’s about how you can perform on the day. The psychology of sports and high performance is a new concept, relatively, and they’ve just embraced it.
COR: Arno, you were born in 1991, so you were too young for the Boks’ 1995 success...
AB: Yeah, I only watched the Bulls play rugby when I was a kid, but I do remember watching the Boks win in 2007, the same year the Bulls won Super Rugby.
COR: That side had Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw in the backrow. Were they your inspiration?
AB: My walls were full of those guys, posters of them, Pierre Spies also. The loose forwards of that team speak for themselves, some of them just recently retired. It shows you what they were made of, the mental attitude they had.
COR: When you look at videos of those games, even in ’07, do you see a different sport?
AM: Oh yeah, take American football for example, if you watch it a long time ago and then now, the game hasn’t changed a lot, soccer hasn’t changed a whole lot either, but rugby has changed so much. It changes every year. It used to be nine-man rugby up here, but you need to be skilful now, you can’t just win with tackles.
COR: Your All Black debut came in 2010 — were you thinking 2011 World Cup?
AM: I got Super Rugby player of the year in 2010, and that’s why I was in the squad for Tri Nations, and then 2011, our Blues team made the semi-final of Super Rugby and I had another good year. But I was quite young and at the Blues, we played hard and partied quite hard... it didn’t affect our rugby, but it’s my biggest regret.
With the Blues you’d go to the coaches for feedback, but on tour I was just naive, a bit shy, I didn’t sit around the coaches and they really test you. Graham Henry walked past me in training and said ‘you’re starting against England in Twickenham’ and walked off. Everyone’s always watching you, they just chuck you in the deep end — sink or swim.
I was just naive and probably wasn’t what I should have been. I was going out with the boys after games, not that it was frowned upon, but I didn’t ask the coaches for work-ons etc.
COR: Piri Weepu, Andy Ellis, Jimmy Cowan got the nod for the tournament — how were you told?
AM: Yeah... ah... they didn’t give me feedback as such... they just thought ‘this is the World Cup’ and they couldn’t rely on me. I was gutted, obviously.
COR: Then they win it...
AM: Yeah, it was tough, I mean I was happy for them, but inside I was thinking ‘damn that’s what I hung around for’, because I had a big offer from France, but I wanted to make the World Cup. It would be my biggest regret.
COR: Arno, your first caps came mid-cycle in 2013. You must have had an eye on 2015?
AB: I always wrote down my goals and knew what I wanted to do, and when I was 19 I wrote down I wanted to play for South Africa, go on and be captain, the goals have to scare you. I went on tour in 2012, and that just pissed me off most of the time. Heynecke Meyer brought in six guys who were ‘potential Boks’ and the tour was on our June break, so we just held bags for six weeks. At the end of it I just felt ‘this sucks’.
So I made a deal with myself that I was going to play for the Boks and I was not going to eat any chocolates until I get a cap. I had a sweet tooth but I had to wait until the next year to have any. A coach bought me eight chocolates the week of my debut, and then I tore my ACL.
A bit unlucky! I did it again seven months later, and believed I could make it in 2015, but there was a good group there and it never really happened again. I knew coming to Munster that playing overseas could hamper my chances, but I’m always hopeful. It’s still written down.
COR: Watching this year — are you excited, how is the dressing room?
AM: I am, I’m very competitive. I’m not happy listening to 40 Irishmen, or the South African boys, and now we’ve Stephen Larkham as well, so there’s an Australian there now as well. They always say “Oh, if the Saracens played the Crusaders they’d flog them, there’s no defence in Super Rugby’, and I’m like ‘how are the All Blacks so dominant, they all play Super Rugby?’
You try defend against that speed and skill, these guys only defend well because they play against average attack up here...So when Ireland beat the All Blacks...God... it’s still not as bad as when I played in Australia... I’m a big NFL fan, if the Patriots lose I’ll come into training very angry, I’m so invested in them, and Tom Brady, for ten years, and I don’t know why...
COR: And you Arno?
AB: I can’t remember the question now!
AM: Are you interested in watching the World Cup?
AB: Definitely. I’m much more relaxed than Alby... he’s half-Australian, and when you know where you come from you can be comfortable. I’m joking... It’s good to watch friends and support them, and see how the country does.
COR: Is it harder for you because while Alby knows his test career is over, you still have hope?
AB: No, I just use it as an opportunity to see what I have to do better to be there. Rassie said last year if you set the world on fire, tackle exceptionally, carry exceptionally — then you can be in the squad no matter where you are. It’ll always be something to look at for me. I can’t be bitter, I wasn’t brought up that way, you have to give credit to the guy who’s there.
COR: What do you think of the job Rassie has done?
AB: He knows what he’s doing obviously, and he knows who to put into the right places. You look at his team like a chain, and he puts experienced guys in to support those less experienced links, you could have a player with maybe 10 caps, then two guys later there’s someone with 100 caps, then 10, then 60, so there’s never a leader too far from you... that’s how I see it.
COR: The All Blacks appeared vulnerable pre-tournament, but have they figured out how to peak at the right time?
AM: They weren’t very convincing in the Rugby Championship, but it’s not the be all and end all... sometimes they don’t always show their cards and they tried a few different things. Then they dropped Owen Franks, 100-and-something caps — they’re not afraid to get rid of guys.
I love the look of Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15, two playmakers either side of the ball. Beauden’s won player of the year twice as out half, but Richie’s world class and he can control the match. Having Beauden counter attack... it’s the best lineup, and you get two world class players on the park at the same time.”
COR: Confident for the Boks?
AB: You have to be confident with the coaching team in place. We’ve done well against New Zealand in the last two years, but we were consistently good in the Championship, against Argentina, Australia too.
To win something it’s not about peaking, it’s about getting to a high standard and staying there, so I’m positive about that.
COR: Alby, if Joey Carbery hadn’t moved to Ireland, would he be near the All Blacks?
AM: Yeah, I think he’s very similar to Richie Mo’unga, the way he plays. Joey can take it flat to the line, he’s got a good kicking game, the footwork, all that. He just reminds me of a Kiwi 10, that mindset, he see the game like that. This is Joey’s first year in terms of getting a lot of starts at 10, and with more time he’ll get more confident in bossing the forwards and the likes.
AB: I’ll go for a South Africa v New Zealand final.
AM: But England are a huge team, Joe Cokanasiga, Manu Tuilagi...
AB: I’m very confident for South Africa...it’s just been so constant, and I think they can bring something unexpected from the wingers.
COR: If there is a South Africa v New Zealand final — will you watch it together? Go for a pint?
AM: If New Zealandlose, I’ll give Arno somechocolate. If we win you can get me beer!
AB: Let’s get some money on it baby, not chocolate.
AM: Chocolate and beer. Done.