New Zealand’s winning habit hard to change
Habits are hard to change, and few teams in sport currently have a winning habit as unshakeable as New Zealand’s rugby world champions.
With 33 wins and a single loss in 36 games in all competitions since claiming the World Cup title in 2011, the all-conquering All Blacks are a match away from going three straight seasons unbeaten in the grueling southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
In the unforgiving world of international rugby, New Zealand has been almost unbeatable since winning its second World Cup, only going down in England on an end-of-year tour in December 2012, and drawing twice in Australia.
“Belief is a funny thing. The more you win it becomes a habit, and it is a habit with them,” veteran South African forward and 2007 World Cup winner Victor Matfield said.
Matfield and South Africa are the latest to challenge the All Blacks’ habit in Saturday’s final round of the Rugby Championship, when the New Zealanders can cap a third successive title with a 17th win in 18 tournament games over three years. A 12-12 draw against Australia in August is the only time the men in black have failed to win since the expanded four-team championship started in 2012.
Even though the title is safely tucked away for another year after victory in Argentina, the All Blacks “will be spurred on by a huge amount of personal and team pride” in South Africa, coach Steve Hansen said.
They are not empty words.
While New Zealand may be a little off Pakistan squash player Jahangir Khan’s reputed five-year winning run that apparently included more than 550 matches, Hansen has lifted rugby’s No. 1 team to new heights since taking over as coach after the 2011 world title.
The All Blacks have won pretty much everywhere recently, including every test at home for the last five years.
New Zealand’s record in the Rugby Championship is especially impressive because it plays its closest challengers — No. 2-ranked South Africa and No. 3-ranked Australia — every season. New Zealand has beaten South Africa in their last five games and hasn’t lost to either of the two other southern hemisphere powers since 2011. Australia has claimed two draws, and those draws felt like losses for the All Blacks and victories for its opposition.
Saturday’s test against the Springboks in the cauldron-like inner-city Ellis Park in Johannesburg — South Africa’s most daunting rugby ground — might have provided a more severe threat to the run of New Zealand, which lost a World Cup final there in 1995.
Only New Zealand rolled into Johannesburg at the end of last season’s championship, absorbed waves of Springboks pressure and deafening noise, and won 38-27 to leave no doubt who No. 1 was.
In its current form, New Zealand welcomes such acid tests, Hansen said Thursday.
“Even though we have won the Rugby Championship, this is the game we always look forward to playing each year,” Hansen said, predicting “another classic All Blacks-Springboks test.”
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer believes South Africa is closing the gap after a narrow 14-10 loss in New Zealand.
He also argued this week that there is less pressure on his home team with the title already settled, leaving fans from both countries to hark back to much of the 93-year history of battles between rugby’s fiercest rivals when — before they met for the first time in a World Cup in ’95 — pride was the only prize.
But the biggest prize is ahead, next year’s World Cup.
Should New Zealand win again at Ellis Park for a sixth straight triumph over its nearest challenger, it enforces what the new rugby world rankings already say: The top-ranked, world and southern hemisphere champion is pulling away from all rivals.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Francois Hougaard; Duane Vermeulen/Schalk Burger, Teboho Mohoje, Marcell Coetzee, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Marcel van der Merwe, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger/Warren Whiteley, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie, JP Pietersen.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Jeremy Thrush, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Liam Messam, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Colin Slade, Ryan Crotty.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP