Rugby: Australia vs. New Zealand, a Tale of Two Countries, a Clash of Confidence
"Four more years, boys."
Four innocuous words that still resonate loudly in the ears of many All Blacks fans. For these four words were uttered in the closing stages of the last match these two behemoths played at a Rugby World Cup. It was 2003. Sydney. A semifinal match that the Australians won 22-10.
Australia and New Zealand have always shared an unusual relationship. To outside observers the people of both countries are like peas in a pod. People who intermingle freely at so many different events due to an apparent similarity in culture. New world countries with similar family trees.
History shows a friendship built on battlefields around the globe. An alliance based on shared sacrifice and unspoken respect. When disasters strike, the two countries show true support to each other. Be it New Zealand firefighters dousing the purging flames of a Victorian bushfire or the Australian search and rescue teams that were the first to arrive when earthquakes shook Christchurch's centre.
It comes natural for both countries to show a strong hand of support to each other. But underneath this camaraderie lies a fierce rivalry—brothers in arms who quickly become Cain and Abel.
Australia is a power in world sporting terms. It's in rugby union that New Zealand has found the most opportunity to dominate their larger neighbour.
"Four more years, boys," were the words the Australian halfback George Gregan shared with his All Black counterpart Byron Kelleher. But in saying these words Gregan effectively poured salt on a wound that a whole country bears.
It's been 24 years since New Zealand last won the World Cup. Australia has since gone on to win two. If the Wallabies win this one, they'll be the first nation to win three cups. When Brazil achieved this in football, in 1970, FIFA gifted them with the Jules Rimet Trophy. Could the IRB do something similar with the William Webb Ellis?
It's been 16 years since the All Blacks last won a semifinal, beating England in a landmark game against South Africa in 1995. The New Zealanders have never beaten the Wallabies at a World Cup. The two previous encounters between these two nations were also both semifinals; on both occasions the Australians scored splendid wins over their Tasman neighbours.
Sunday's game will be played at Eden Park in Auckland. It's been 25 years since the Australians last won a game at that venue—a substantial 22-9 test victory over a New Zealand side that had been divided by a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa.
However, history will play no major part in this weekend's match. This will not be a battle decided by memories of previously played games but a clash in confidence.
Both teams come into the semifinal having been shaken in their previous games.
This was a quarterfinal the All Blacks needed, an opportunity to test their accuracy against strong defensive lines. In beating Argentina, the All Blacks found a level of resistance they probably were not expecting. They were sufficiently tested for some doubts to emerge.
In their game, the Australians achieved an incredulous win over a rampant Springbok side. South Africa are the reigning champions. In tournaments past, whoever has beaten the champions has gone on to win the World Cup. However the Australians also need to contend with the fact that no team has ever won the World Cup having lost a pool game.
Every statistic except the final score went in favour of the South Africans. The Australian defence laid a daunting challenge to the All Blacks. Even though the Springboks commanded 76 percent of territory and 56 percent of possession that was not enough to beat Australia. This brings pressure on All Black accuracy.
Robbie Deans, the New Zealand-born Wallaby coach, is claiming their loss to Ireland at Eden Park was an important lesson for his side. Without that loss they would have not beaten the South Africans. Deans' confidence may also come from the knowledge that his team has beaten the All Blacks twice in their last three encounters.
When asked about Australia's record at Eden Park, Wallaby playmaker Berrick Barnes fired this retort: "They're worried about us come World Cup time too," a comment which suggests he wants to play this one from the front foot.
As for George Gregan and his fabled four words, we recognise the poignancy of his sledge. Australians always bring a mental edge with their sporting prowess, a confidence that they're always seemingly happy to articulate loudly in an imposing manner.
But what was telling with Gregan's words was the vindictiveness that was captured on his face. It was the fact that Gregan even needed to make such a statement. For many test rugby players, the victory alone would have brought immense satisfaction.
Where Gregan really scored was his insinuation that the All Blacks had choked again, that they did not have the mental strength to win a tournament of this magnitude.
You see, when those words were exclaimed that's when the friendly banter often shared between Australian and New Zealand fans started assuming a new identity. This question mark around New Zealand's ability to win the World Cup, in their beloved sport, became a new point of exploitation.
In recent times, New Zealand resentment has been further agitated by Australian first-five Quade Cooper. Cooper, another New Zealand-born member of the Wallaby team, stirred sentiment when landing cheap shots (slaps and knees) on All Black captain Richie McCaw, in a match played only weeks before the World Cup started.
The situation with Cooper has got to such a level that Australian rugby legends Mark Ella and Nick Farr-Jones have, in separate instances, recommended to Cooper to focus on his game.
Throughout this tournament Wallaby fans have been shocked with the vitriol poured on them by host fans. An Australian newspaper poll highlighted that 64 percent of their supporters felt threatened at games.
This is something that rugby does not need. It's also a potent reminder of the importance the local fans place on beating Australia. This burden of expectation sometimes weighs heavily on All Black sides. If they can mentally separate themselves from the pressures of the day, they as the home team will be able to carry this one out.
For both teams, composure will be an essential precursor to success. For the winners this game will take a huge toll on physical and mental stocks. It'll be a huge challenge to replenish energy levels in time for the final. For the losers of this semifinal, "Four more years, boys."
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