You would think the whole idea of sport is that the score settles the argument. As often as not, though, the score gives the argument fresh legs. Take the All Blacks’ 38-21 loss to England in their final game of 2012. A close rugby match is one in which the winning margin is six points or fewer, because a last-minute converted try to the losers would have reversed the result. Conversely, a margin of 15 points or more is a hiding, since making up the deficit would have required at least three scores.
So although the Twickenham upset would seem to speak for itself, there were contrasting takes on its significance and implications for the 2015 World Cup. On one side were those who viewed it as what statisticians call an outlier, an observation that is out of kilter with the rest of the data.
The term has entered the American journalistic vocabulary to refer to a political poll that dramatically bucks the trend. During the presidential election, stats guru Nate Silver dismissed Gallup polls suggesting Mitt Romney was heading for a near-landslide as outliers. When challenged, he simply pointed out that for Gallup to be right, the vast majority of other pollsters had to be wrong. Context is everything in this school of thought: the All Blacks’ minds were already at the beach, and their end-of-season fatigue was compounded by the virus that had laid low all but a handful of the squad and disrupted their preparation.
Missed tackles statistics appear to bear this out: in their 10 tests during the domestic season, the All Blacks averaged eight missed tackles a game; in the four European tour games that figure blew out to 19. It’s often said defence is an attitude, and these statistics indicate the steely defensive resolve that was so apparent earlier in the year got lost in transit.
Rank underdogs after losses to Australia and South Africa, England played with the freedom that comes from having nothing to lose. As Richie McCaw admitted, the All Blacks were “caught on the hop” by the home team’s attacking mindset. The counter-argument is that this hammering revealed an unpalatable truth that had been glossed over by a string of victories over mediocre opposition: these All Blacks aren’t as good as we – or they – thought they were.
Thus the clean sweep of the Rugby Championship flattered to deceive: the Springboks and Wallabies were weakened by injuries to star players like Bismarck du Plessis and Will Genia; the Argentinians were unused to the demands of Southern Hemisphere championship rugby; and the impressive missed-tackle stat quoted above was more a reflection of their opponents’ pedestrian offence.
The pessimists see cracks appearing. They point out that the All Blacks failed to win their last two games against top-tier nations, in part because they were out-muscled upfront. Without Brad Thorn’s grunt, the scrum is less potent; without a defensive hit man in the Jerry Collins/Jerome Kaino mould, opposition ball carriers no longer advance with trepidation, keeping an eye out for low-flying human missiles.
At the risk of being accused of sitting on the fence, I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. England provided a timely reality check while resolving the frankly silly media debate over whether this is the best All Blacks team of all time.
I also suspect that a number of incumbent All Blacks, not all of them veterans, will come under much closer scrutiny in the upcoming Super 15 than either they or the selectors would have expected little more than a month ago.