Four years ago the All Blacks got precious little sympathy when they were knocked out in a match notable for Wayne Barnes’s questionable refereeing.
The rest of the rugby world was dismissive of suggestions an injustice had been done and scornful of our inability to take it on the chin. UK rugby writer Stephen Jones went the extra provocative mile, as is his wont, insisting Barnes had given one of the great refereeing displays.
Yet a stoic refusal to blame the referee was conspicuous by its absence when Alain Rolland red-carded Sam Warburton early in Wales’s semi-final loss to France. The recrimination was so shrill and protracted you had to wonder why this instance of a referee having an undue influence on a World Cup knockout game was so much worse than 2007’s.
The unfancied Welsh were many people’s second team, a status the All Blacks certainly didn’t enjoy in 2007. And although the sending off was a disaster for Wales, it was a tragedy for their impressive young captain. The aphorism mistakenly attributed to Joseph Stalin – “One man’s death is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic” – derives its force from the uncomfortable truth that humans often find it easier to empathise with an individual than a group.
Third, there’s the difference between sins of commission and sins of omission. Rolland chose to give Warburton a red card, as opposed to a yellow; the case against Barnes was that he ignored repeated French transgressions.
However, if Rolland had given a yellow, he assuredly would have been accused of refereeing the occasion rather than the incident. And if Wales had gone on to win, the French would have complained his failure of nerve cost them a place in the final.
Wales’s Kiwi coach, Warren Gatland, invoked the spirit of the game, contrasting his refusal to have his players fake an injury to engineer uncontested scrums with Rolland’s letter-of-the-law approach. But there’s a world of difference between a coach, having weighed the options, telling his players to cheat, and a referee making an instant decision that, although technically correct, was heavy-handed.
If the All Blacks thought their triumph would enable them to shed the tag of World Cup chokers, they had another think coming. The fact the final was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw”, as the Duke of Wellington said when France came second at Waterloo, has persuaded some critics the All Blacks choked yet again.
This isn’t as contrary as it might seem: to choke is to underperform because of the pressure of the occasion. Thus, although the French lost, it was the opposite of choking because they rose to the occasion and played far better than expected.
But you could argue the French were under far less pressure than the All Blacks because they had so little to lose. And if winners who perform below their best are chokers, what label do you pin on losers who were supposedly the superior team on the day?
Only two World Cup finals have been routs: 1987 and 1999. The 1995 and 2003 finals were decided by extra-time drop goals. The Springboks have won two finals without scoring a single try. Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones was deflated after the 1991 final because his victorious team had been so unadventurous.
Did these winners choke, or did they just play low-risk percentage rugby?
Over the past four years it has been said many times by many people that the All Blacks couldn’t win the World Cup without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Well, injury eliminated Carter (and his back-up and his back-up’s back-up) and hobbled McCaw, but the All Blacks still overcame a French team who were faithful to their tradition of producing one barnstorming performance per tournament. That doesn’t seem like choking to me.