AUCKLAND, 9 Oct. - At Rugby World Cup 2007, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was the scene of New Zealand's shock quarter-final exit against France, a result that led to one prominent Kiwi sports commentator labelling the country "a dumb rugby nation".
The critics had plenty of ammunition: the 20-18 reverse was another episode in a succession of All Blacks RWC failures, and its impact was all the more severe because New Zealand have been pre-tournament favourites for every RWC since they lifted the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil in 1987's inaugural tournament.
The expectations that come with being favourites clearly have not always sat well with the All Blacks - but they are back for RWC 2011, and deservedly so.
Coach Graham Henry almost fell on his sword as a consequence of the 2007 quarter-final exit, but reapplied for his job, convinced the New Zealand Rugby Union he was still the right man to win a Rugby World Cup and was reappointed in December of that year.
Henry admitted after the Cardiff defeat that the team would be "scarred for life", so it is a fair assumption that unfinished business for him, fellow coaches Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen and a group of senior players has helped New Zealand to amass a superb Test record in the period between World Cups.
In matches against top-20 ranked teams, New Zealand have an 81.25 per cent winning record, compare that record with the next best among RWC 2011 quarter-finalists - South Africa's 61.36 per cent - and it is beyond outstanding.
Among the quarter-finalists, only Australia have played as many Tests (48) as New Zealand in the same four-year period, yet the All Blacks have been beaten just nine times, six fewer than the next best France (15) who have played 10 fewer Tests, many of them against lower-ranked opposition, while New Zealand play regularly in the Tri Nations against Australia and South Africa.
On game averages, New Zealand have scored more tries than anyone else, scored more points than anyone else, and even conceded fewer points than anyone else. Significantly, no team have stopped them scoring at least one try since Australia beat them 23-18 in Sydney in August 2004, a 93-match unbroken run that says much about they way they play their rugby.
New Zealand's fine form has continued at RWC 2011 as they steamrollered their way through Pool A with more tries (36) and points (240) than any other team, four wins and maximum bonus points.
But those figures might not be a particularly good omen.
Two teams, New Zealand and Australia, won their four pool matches and took maximum bonus points at RWC 2007, and both were knocked out in their next matches. Up against Argentina in the quarter-finals this time, if the same thing were to happen to the All Blacks at Eden Park on Sunday it would surely be the greatest upset in RWC history.
After all, Argentina have never beaten New Zealand and the average margin of victory for the All Blacks in the professional era stands at a shade over 38 points.
Since RWC 2007, however, when the Pumas finished third and New Zealand were, in relative terms, nowhere, the All Blacks have lost a handful of matches and showed a few chinks in their impressive armour. It has not happened a lot and the losses have not been by much - a converted score on average. But it has happened, and the world's No.1 team are beatable.
First thing's first: the New Zealand team. Despite Graham Henry insisting that Colin Slade is "the boy", the Pumas would have been pleased they do not have to face Dan Carter. In an 85-Test All Black career to date, Carter has been on the losing side only 10 times.
One major yardstick of Carter's influence on the All Blacks is the fact that in seven matches against Tri Nations or Six Nations opposition without him between RWC 2007 and RWC 2011, New Zealand lost four and won the other three by an average of only 3.7 points - and that in a period where their overall average winning margin was just over 20.
The next encouraging thing for Argentina is that since RWC 2007, South Africa are the team to have caused New Zealand the most problems. More than half (five) of the All Blacks' nine defeats have come at the hands of South Africa and it is not too hard to find similarities in the rugged playing styles of the Springboks and the Pumas.
Everyone knows that New Zealand love to move the ball, so - in general - South Africa's victories were built on game plans that tried to frustrate the All Blacks. They attempted to dominate territory with tactical kicking that forced the All Blacks back into their own half, and then never allowed them any easy possession, continually attacking their scrum and lineout ball.
Not smart enough
Over their five victories, the Springboks managed to win more than one in 10 scrums on the All Blacks' put-in, as well as stealing or at least heavily disrupting more than 25 per cent of New Zealand's lineout ball.
Frustration creates irritation and ill-discipline, and penalty counts rise. In six of New Zealand's nine defeats, opposition tactics forced them into conceding more penalties than their counterparts, and with a good kicker to take advantage of indiscretions the scoreboard can quickly become an enemy.
"We weren't smart enough to play at the right end of the field," said a frustrated Richie McCaw after a 28-19 defeat in Bloemfontein in 2009. "The Springboks played particularly well and mistakes forced us to play at our own end of the field. Points came from there."
The Springboks supplemented their game plan of frustration with an unrelenting physicality and prodigious work-rate in tackle situations and subsequent rucks, registering a tackle ratio of two to one over the five victories, including one match, their 30-28 victory in Durban in 2008, where the ratio was more than two and three quarters to one.
After the Springboks' 18-5 Tri Nations win in Port Elizabeth just before RWC 2011, All Blacks assistant coach Smith begrudgingly admired the home side's remarkable defensive efforts. "It's not often that you break the line 23 times and you lose," said Smith. "It says a lot for the Boks' scrambling defence, maybe South Africa were just too good."
Hard work in defence by the opposition was also a factor in the All Blacks' other defeats. Both Australia and France doubled New Zealand's tackle count in 34-19 (Sydney, 2008) and 27-22 (Dunedin, 2009) victories.
Pumas coach Santiago Phelan should also have observed that the common and effective tactic of using the scoreboard to build pressure has enjoyed marked success against the All Blacks. Keeping New Zealand below 20 points at half-time is critical to a team's chances of success against them.
In all nine of their defeats since RWC 2007, the All Blacks have been short of 20 points at the break and in only one of those, Australia's nerveless injury-time 26-24 win in Hong Kong in 2010, have New Zealand enjoyed a half-time lead (they were 17-12 ahead in that match).
The 20-point half-time mark has also been applicable in the All Blacks' RWC knockout defeats.
They did not score in the first half against Australia in their 16-6 semi-final defeat in 1991, scored only six in the first half in the defeat by South Africa in the 1995 final, had only 17 points (although they had the lead) in their 43-31 1999 semi-final loss to France, scored their first points only a few minutes before the break in their 22-10 semi-final defeat by Australia in 2003 and were ahead 13-3 before losing to France in 2007.
A good start, then, is crucial and keeping New Zealand away from 20 points at any time in a match is almost essential as they have only ever lost one RWC match in which they have scored 20 or more points, the 1999 shock against Les Bleus.
It is a big ask for the Pumas of course, but the blueprint is there. Getting the ball into New Zealand's half of the field early and putting them under pressure to force mistakes, and/or defending like men possessed when the All Blacks inevitably try to run ball back. These are the keys to the prospects of an upset.
Out of steam
Putting New Zealand under sustained pressure or making them play behind the scoreboard exposes an often unseen side of the world's top-ranked team, and Henry has acknowledged that his men have lost composure or "run out of steam" towards the end of matches in the past.
"We were trying to play catch-up and trying to do things that probably weren't on," said Henry after seeing his All Blacks concede more than 20 turnovers and 10 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes of a 34-19 loss to Australia in 2008.
There are always plenty of 'ifs' in knockout rugby, but if half-time comes at Eden Park on Sunday and Argentina are in touch and have found a way to make an aggressive game plan work, the All Blacks will not simply be able to hope that their South American opponents capitulate.
They will have to stay composed, eliminate "dumbness" and be more intelligent than they were at the Millennium Stadium four years ago.
- South Africa
- New Zealand