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All Blacks' dream dies in night of despair
All Blacks' dream dies in night of despair
(World Cup agony again for NZ)

Australia 22 New Zealand 10 (Rugby World Cup semi-final)
Telstra Stadium, Sydney
Saturday 15 November 2003 10pm (NZT)
Referee: Chris White (England)
Half-time: Australia 13 New Zealand 7 

"It's just a game," they say. The sun has come up twice since the terrible event. But for some, facing each new day has undoubtedly been difficult.

It has been less than 48 hours, at the time of writing, since this correspondent watched the Wallabies defeat the All Blacks 22-10 in the first semi-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The post-mortems are endless, the viewpoints conflicting, the criticisms searing.

It does not change the agonising facts: the All Blacks, pride of a rugby nation, are out of the Rugby World Cup for 2003. Like 1999. And 1995. And 1991.

It was only one try apiece and one could argue that Elton Flatley's kicking was the essential difference between the teams.

It would be a wrong argument. The All Blacks were completely outplayed by the Wallabies in most, if not all, facets of the game. The Australians had more determination, more inner resources, a stronger game plan and an opponent unable to rise to the challenge.

The New Zealand team was devastated after the match. They felt they had let the country and equally, if not more importantly, themselves down. The looks on Reuben Thorne, Justin Marshall, Mils Muliaina and the rest as they bravely fronted for after-match interviews said it all.

There is no doubting the All Blacks' desire to win this crucial game or their willingness to put everything on the line for their country. The problem is, the Wallabies had far more of both.

When critics on both sides of the Tasman Sea predicted a comfortable win for the All Blacks, this correspondent, he is sorry to say, had some uncomfortable premonitions.

Of all the teams in the world able to stand up and upset the All Blacks, it is the Wallabies. Everyone, surely, after all these years, knows this. The combination of a home crowd, Waltzing Maltilda, and just plain, solid rugby on their part, were a lethal potion.

Naturally this correspondent wanted the best and most logical result: an All Black win. The problem is: the New Zealanders had to work to get there and they fell down on the job. It's not a good feeling for any of us who do that. The All Blacks are possibly hurting more than most of us.

The Wallabies started off, dominating possession but the All Blacks had their chances. Mils Muliaina crossed for a disallowed try, which was ruled as a knock-on. It was a line-ball call but the match officials probably did the right thing in terms of ruling out the try.

And, of course, Carlos Spencer had the chance to send one of his teammates in a few minutes later. The problem with that is that Stirling Mortlock took that chance for his own team and his 80-metre run for a try was in hindsight, a turning point for everyone.

With Flatley's conversion and two penalties the Wallabies were up 13-0 after 32 minutes. It was not a comfortable feeling.

Spencer tried to make amends with a stylish run from a turnover, outfoxing the Wallabies and putting All Black captain Reuben Thorne in for a try.

It was, with MacDonald's conversion, 13-7 to the Wallabies. The All Blacks were still in the game. But there were troubling signs: turnovers, handling errors etc.

It continued in the second half as Flatley kicked three penalties to MacDonald's one. That statistic alone indicates the All Blacks made more mistakes than the Wallabies.

MacDonald missed kicks, Justin Marshall, who has played with more heart than most, came off injured (much to his chagrin as it was apparently due to an illegal blow from a penalised Wallaby) and Byron Kelleher, lacking match play was unable to substitute effectively.

Somehow, the All Blacks could not adjust their game plan to suit a fired-up and uncompromising Wallaby team.

It has been suggested by a Sunday newspaper and Wellington's major daily that this is a reflection on the on-field captaincy of Reuben Thorne and off-field coaching of John Mitchell and Robbie Deans.

They are accountable for this, to be sure. So are the rest of the squad. Four years of planning  in the wilderness (with two new All Black coaches included)  has come to naught.

When the final whistle went, with a 12-point win for the Wallabies who had been mostly written off by their supporters and local media (and most on our side, too), it was a blow for New Zealand fans.

Not as big a blow for this correspondent as 1991, when at least New Zealand had held the Rugby World Cup for a while. In 1995, it at least gave South Africa a boost to its national morale. 1999 was stunning because there was no food-poisoning beforehand to put the team off. France pulled a win out of the blue.

2003 was something we've been through before. But once the shock of repetition wears off, and it's starting to, the aftermath could be huge.

Did the All Blacks lose the most important game of the tournament because the Wallabies were definitely the better team on the night? Yes, they did. Are there other factors at work? Quite possibly.

For New Zealanders could see the All Blacks making mistakes during the pool games and even in their 20-point quarter-final win over South Africa, these were still creeping in. Missed kicks, dropped passes, lost possession, failure to make the most of the ball they had.

But many refused to accept that the All Blacks would not be able to rub these off when it came to the crunch. We waited for them to fire. They didn't.

As long as they kept winning, we would brush off the media reservations about the All Blacks unapproachable manner with them and the wider public. They were there to win after all.

But now, the whole package comes under the spotlight. The whole of New Zealand rugby, as Jock Hobbs said in an interview after the game, was dedicated to a 2003 World Cup win. The squad have not met expectations.

Before any inquisitions can reasonably start, however, we should see how the All Blacks go against France on Thursday night. If they can salvage third place from the tournament, that is a foundation to move forward on. If not, harsher words may, unfortunately, be called for.

Of course, as England and Australia bunk down for their final on Saturday, New Zealand rugby supporters will lament again their team's loss of stature and a return to the 1987 glory days.

Criticism should not be destructive. The majority of critics, including this correspondent, have never pulled on the All Black jersey. Those who have are entitled to our sympathy. But expressions of disappointment are unavoidable.

Where does New Zealand rugby go from here? Who knows? It will take a lot of effort to pick ourselves up from this. But, if 133 years of New Zealand rugby history are to count for anything, we have to try.


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Awwww Jed, now you've gone a depressed me all over again!!
Supposedly this article has been viewed times since we bothered to start counting*.
(Although it could have just been on the Reload button doing some serious ego padding!)