Pressure on New Zealand to live up to expectations

THE rugby world has long viewed the famous All Blacks with a measure of awe, but the pressure is building on the men entrusted with the iconic jerseys this year to entrench their fearsome reputation with a World Cup crown.

Not since David Kirk lifted the inaugural trophy in Auckland in 1987 have New Zealand triumphed in the tournament, of which they were among the most vociferous supporters when it was finally introduced 20 years ago. South Africa may claim to be the biggest rugby nation on earth in population terms, while Australians like to think of their nation as being the best by virtue of the Wallabies being the only side to have won the World Cup twice.

But nowhere does rugby engage a greater percentage of the population than in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the two islands, north and south, which treasure tradition yet welcome a rich mix of races from across the South Seas, all besotted by the oval ball.

No country has performed as consistently well as New Zealand in the World Cup - reaching the semi-final in every tournament, the final twice, winning more matches and scoring more tries than anyone - and yet the lustre of the black jerseys, the pre-match Haka and the image of All Blacks as born winners has dulled somewhat as on each occasion they have fallen short of regaining the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Andy Leslie knows a bit about pressure, having captained the All Blacks in ten Test matches between 1974 and 1976. He watched his sons, John and Martin, retrace his own father's path back to Scotland, becoming key figures in northern hemisphere rugby before Martin's career ended on the sour note of a ban at the end of the 2003 RWC.

When we spoke this week, Leslie senior was bouncing his grandson, Mako Lennox, Martin's son, on his knee in his Wellington home, before handing him over to wife Lesley for a bottle, admitting he loved baby-sitting. This week, however, the 62-year-old will look out his black suit with the silver fern and head north to join the New Zealand squad as the widely respected president of the New Zealand RFU, the weight of a nation's expectation on his shoulders.

"If you were to put it into a football perspective, I imagine it's a bit like Brazil heading to the FIFA World Cup," he said. "This is our national game, and everybody - every single person in New Zealand - has probably held a rugby ball at some point in their lives, so they have a real feel for rugby, they enjoy participation, watching, supporting, and so all have an expectation when it comes to the Rugby World Cup.

"There is a great atmosphere in New Zealand right now, great enthusiasm and support for the team, but I know that you can be the best prepared team in the world, even favourites, and someone can drop a ball over the line or lose a controversial try and the dream's over.

"I don't have the same expectation on me, obviously, as the team does, but you can't help but be more aware in this role of what's going on, because of the situations you are privileged to be in - watching training, being in changing rooms after the game, going to functions with the team - and through that you become part of that pressure."

Strength and quality run right through this New Zealand squad, starting with the shrewd coaching staff of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, men who have proven themselves as head coaches, but who combine to produce the kind of brains trust most nations can only dream of.

And then there is a pack that has now played together almost constantly since the painful defeat to Australia in 2003: the rough-edged rocks of Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo alongside Richie McCaw, widely recognised as the world's hardest and most gifted openside flanker; skilled locks Chris Jack and Ali Williams; a formidable front row of Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver or Keven Mealamu, and Greg Somerville or Tony Woodcock. A pack with the strength, cohesion, skill and pure rugby nous that, on top form, none in this tournament can match.

They also know how and when to exploit a back division featuring Byron Kelleher at scrum-half and the awesome Daniel Carter at stand-off; Aaron Mauger and Conrad Smith, or youngster Isaia Toeava, in the centres, and the pick of explosive runners out wide in Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina and Doug Howlett.

Yet there remains the big 'but'. The All Blacks have had impressive squads before, but come unstuck, with a habit of peaking too soon - they are often invincible world-beaters in the two years in between World Cups.

Worryingly for some, Tana Umaga's side swept all before them - Tri-Nations rivals, the British and Irish Lions and all four home nations - in an astonishing 2005, but Leslie believes that to be immaterial this time. He said: "It is true that a team has to peak at the right time to win a World Cup, but this team has not peaked yet. They have developed really well without Tana, there is a lot of great football talent in these players and a lot of quietly building determination to do it this year."

Leslie is a man with a great feel for the game and he spoke of his concerns for Scottish rugby and how he was "shocked and saddened" to see the Borders lose its professional team this year. He termed the Borders "the Munster of Scottish rugby; the HQ, where people live and breathe rugby on a daily basis, like here."

He admitted that New Zealand was far from perfect, however, saying it too had struggled to merge the ambitions of the amateur clubs with those of the professional game until the last couple of years. The NZRFU's securing of the 2011 Rugby World Cup has helped pull disparate rugby communities together.

"I obviously have a lot of time for Scottish rugby, through my family, playing against them in the famous 'water polo Test' in Auckland in 1975, and the great friends I still have - I am determined to see David Leslie and Bruce Hay when we're in Edinburgh for the pool match.

"Judging by the look of the team they're pretty well-conditioned, or maybe it's just those new jerseys, and I hope they go well. It's exciting and I think the World Cup will be great. The opening game - France v Argentina - is capturing a lot of attention and I think the tournament will be wonderful for the development of rugby in France.

"Test rugby is a totally different game now to when I played - when we would party with the opposition, see them off at the airport and then be at work the next day - but it is still a great game. It's a tremendous honour for me to have been chosen as president, and especially in a World Cup year.

"Of course, it would be great to play in a World Cup, but I've had my day and I'll be happy just to watch our boys over the next few weeks. Fingers crossed they win it, but if they play their final game and each player can look in the mirror when they put their ties on and say they've given it their best shot, and it wasn't good enough, I'll be happy because the team that beats them will have to have played extremely good rugby."

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