Anyone wanting proof that expectations shape conclusions need look no further than the media reaction to the All Blacks-Italy match in Rome. According to the New Zealand Herald, the All Blacks were “messy … inaccurate … all over the place”. What should have been “a bit of a doddle” turned into a “major malfunction” and a “source of serious concern”.
Over at Fairfax the verdict was equally dismissive: “Italy tends to bring out the ugly in the All Blacks … Whatever it is, [they] seem to disintegrate when they face the Italians … ‘Sloppy’ is paying the All Blacks a compliment they don’t deserve.”
Elsewhere in the rugby world, the 42-10, five-tries-to-one victory was viewed somewhat differently. The Sydney Morning Herald said the “rampant” All Blacks “thumped” the Italians. South African and UK news websites used terms like “dominant” and “overwhelming” to convey the extent of the All Blacks’ superiority. You’d think they were watching different games. In fact, they were just coming at it from different perspectives.
Kiwis expect the All Blacks to win every game and crush all but the very best opposition. “Of course they won,” sniffed the Herald. “The sun wouldn’t have come up this morning if they hadn’t.” Supporters of other national teams can only dream of having the luxury of quibbling over the manner and margin of victory since victory itself is a given.
Furthermore, our media take the All Blacks at their word when they bang on about focusing on quality of performance rather than outcomes in their quest for perfection. (A futile quest, it should be said, which creates a rod for their own backs, since perfection is unattainable when so many factors are beyond their control.)
If you keep meeting high expectations, chances are they will be ramped up until they become unreasonable. Ma‘a Nonu recently complained that the All Blacks can’t win: when they blow teams away, their opponents are written off; when they don’t blow teams away, it’s to their shame rather than the opposition’s credit. Expectations of the opposition also come into it. Perhaps because the All Blacks have been playing Scotland since 1905, whereas Italy are Giovannis-come-lately to international rugby, the performance against the Scots a week earlier was more favourably received.
Herewith the Herald: “The curse of inconsistency has struck again, the All Blacks failing to back up their solidity of last week with anything remotely similar in Rome.”
Yet the facts don’t support this chalk-and-cheese conclusion: an arguably stronger team (led by Richie McCaw and Dan Carter who didn’t play against Italy) beat Scotland by a similar margin, but let in more tries than the All Blacks have conceded for over a year. Scotland may be a rung higher in the world rankings, but Italy has won four of the past six matches between the two countries.
According to the critics, the score in Rome flattered the All Blacks because the margin blew out in the last 10 minutes. Not quite: the All Blacks led 13-0 after 20 minutes and 30-10 at the 50-minute mark. Besides, since when did a strong finish tarnish victory? The All Blacks have always prided themselves on going as hard in the 80th minute as the first.
Perhaps covering this incredibly successful team – the win in Rome made it 19 successive games without defeat – gets a bit boring and our rugby writers are growing weary of singing their praises week after week. If so, I have a suggestion: they could swap jobs with the poor buggers who follow the Black Caps.