Among the forlorn figures in black who traipsed from the field in Bloemfontein on Saturday was captain Richie McCaw. Head bowed, with one hand raised it is hardly a demeanor associated with the All Blacks captain nor one that he will likely have to get use to.
It was a terrible performance, one where territory was surrendered, handling errors were rife and the mighty All Blacks were reduced to mere bystanders. South Africa have shown their class, of that there is no doubt, but it could very well be as important for New Zealand, as the prize they lifted at the inaugural Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987.
McCaw has been undoubtedly the best player to don the No. 7 shirt this century and the All Blacks have undoubtedly been the best team yet world cup honours have eluded them.
Last Saturday they were undone and outclassed by a South African side that hoped the momentum gained in defeating the Lions would continue through to the Tri-Nations series. The first game of the series against the All Blacks would indicate that it has, but for New Zealand and coach Graham Henry, it could be what spurs them on to World Cup glory.
New Zealand have been favourites for every World Cup since winning the tournament in '87, but they have never lived up to the hype. All Black greats such as Jeff Wilson, Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens, Taine Randell, Carlos Spencer, and Reuben Thorne faltered when a world cup seemed within their reach.
The Tri-Nations is not beyond them, but in coasting to victory, South Africa may have sown the seed of doubt, that New Zealand are not the force they once claimed to be.
The weight of that expectation was clear in the 1995 world cup when they were beaten by a Joel Stransky drop goal. It was clear in 2007 when France upset the No. 1 ranked team in the world and it was clear as McCaw trudged off last Saturday.
This is where New Zealand need to be as they build for the world cup.
This weekend sees the return of Jimmy Cowan to scrum half. The once troubled star of New Zealand rugby was dropped following the defeat of Australia but returns as Henry looks to get much needed quick ball to the back line. His jumping passes from the ruck/scrum will give the team an added dimension in an area where South Africa dominated last week.
The return of Luke McAlister to New Zealand rugby is a major boost for their chances in the next world cup. The former Sale Sharks player not only gives Henry the option of an incredibly accurate backup to fit again Dan Carter but can also play at inside centre.
The All Blacks wanted two players for each position prior to the last world cup and McAlister will compete with Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Isaia Toeava, and up-and-coming utility back Tamati Ellison for a starting birth at centre.
The key for New Zealand in this years Tri-Nations will be to fine tune players like McAlister and Ellison in the backline and Isaac Ross and Kieran Read in the forwards who will have leading roles by the time the next world cup comes knocking.
The reaction by the All Black players to last weeks defeat will be key in this weekends game. The line-out was dominated by the Springboks while handling errors and taking passes while static prevented New Zealand from ever getting their running game going.
Durban this weekend provides a chance to make amends but for Henry, who was handed a contract extension this month which ends after the 2011 world cup, the competition should focus on getting players ready for the world cup.
South Africa went three years without winning a Tri-Nations tournament in the lead up to their World Cup triumph in 2007. It's time for New Zealand who have won nine of 13 Tri-Nations series to step up with the Webb Ellis Cup as their sole objective for the next two years.
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