Hard News by Russell Brown


Because I am weak

There have been four great All Black performances in the professional era: the game against Australia at a drowning Athletic Park in 1996. The furious dismissal of France in Paris in 2004. The second test against the Lions at the Wellington Stadium last year. And France again, this past weekend.

Yes, Fitzy's team won a series in South Africa for the first time, and the Mitchell-era All Blacks ran up a couple of cricket scores before the rest of the world worked them out, but I'll argue that those four performances were of a different stripe.

The obvious point - obvious, but remarkable - is that three of the four have taken place on the watch of Graham Henry. Three things have characterised Henry's coaching. One is that his teams win a lot (let's leave his ill-fated Lions side out of it): remember the Blues coming out of nowhere to win the Super 12 with Henry on board as "defence coach" in 2003, and heading rapidly back to nowhere without him? Another is that he seems to be able to motivate maverick players: Carlos Spencer played his best rugby under Henry, and Ali Williams the All Black is light-years ahead of Ali Williams the provincial player. And, third: no player in a Henry team ever takes the field without knowing what is expected of him.

Michael Donaldson's Star Times backgrounder on technical and tactical preparation under the current coaching set-up was fascinating.

All Blacks attack coach Wayne Smith estimates this team, under coach Graham Henry, has used 70 set moves, or what he calls "set ups" over the past three years. Within each set-up there are four or five options as well as opportunities for improvisation. Fortunately for the players they go into each game with only two or three set-ups to remember.

This is the reality of rugby at the top level now. Flourishes of individual brilliance are enabled by a carefully designed pattern of play whose rhythmic execution creates the conditions in which brilliance might flourish. The players not only need to execute this pattern accurately, but at great pace and with unadulterated physical commitment. I fancied that the look on the faces of Richie McCaw and his pack, especially early in the game, was not simply one of fury, but of furious concentration.

I think this All Black team is already staking a claim to being one of the best in the history of the game. But that will all come to little if, again, the All Blacks come undone at the Rugby World Cup. It's no good being a sensation and reinventing the game - as the All Blacks did in 1995 - if you don't win the tournament. And the more capable the All Blacks looking of winning next year in France, the more nervous I get. Doubt, the misty cloud on the New Zealand psyche, gets the better of me. And if I'm like this now, god knows how I'll be next September.

I can only trust that the players who will contest the tournament in our name have conquered that doubt; have the confidence and the belief to play like champions. I need them to be strong, because I am weak.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's a lot of fussing about the next World Cup. Frankly, I think there's a lot of tosh talked about how an "ugly" and "monstrous" waterfront stadium will "block" Aucklanders from their waterfront. I'm sorry, but have you seen what's there now? It's a carpark for used Japanese vehicles and a mooring for the huge vessels that carry them there. It's behind a 10-foot iron fence, and offers no public view whatsoever of the harbour.

Yes, the area concerned has been targeted for redevelopment as public space, but for how long have we been hearing that promise? On the other side of Quay Street, the shambolic development permitted in a short few years by C&R councils has already destroyed all the sightlines around the new Vector Arena.

In this context, I don't think a waterfront stadium; its glass walls encasing bars and cafes and concourses and function rooms gazing over the harbour, its lights blazing at night, would be at all ugly. Remember the way people complained about the Sky Tower as that was being built?

I'm not worried about the money either. The funding model seems viable - and I'm hardly going to place much weight in Wellington newspaper columnists whining because this time a national investment isn't going to be a subsidy for the continued operation of Wellington. I think it's pointless to start totting up the number of hospitals or hip-ops forgone because a great public space has been built. The Australians, who make themselves great public spaces, understand this.

My sole concern is for practicality. I would like to be reassured that this can be built, and be built on time, because fluffing this thing - say, having a stadium, but having it six months late for the World Cup - would be hideously bad. In this context, the decision to anoint Fletcher Construction as the stadium builder without benefit of a tender is probably the only one. As the Vector Arena has shown, contestability does not necessarily get you a result.

The government has now handed Auckland local authorities a "choice": between pouring $300m to $400m into expanding Eden Park, which is a dead end, and the waterfront proposal. The alternative is to let Christchurch have the final. Not included in the choices is Carlaw Park, for reasons as various as they are unconvincing. I suspect Carlaw Park is off the menu not because it's not good enough, but because it's a little too good.

I think Trevor Mallard and the Cabinet really want the iconic waterfront stadium, and the National Party - mindful that it could well be in government by 2011 - likewise sees the appeal.

I see the appeal too. I would just like someone to tell me it can absolutely, positively be built in time to fulfil its purpose.

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