Perhaps it’s just as well Graham Henry has an upside-down smile, because right now he mustn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In 2007 he pulled 22 All Blacks out of the first half of Super 14 for “rest and reconditioning”, the theory being that come World Cup time they’d be as fresh as daisies and in the best physical shape of their careers.
Sceptics suggested there was more value in the All Blacks being battle-hardened than racking up personal bests on the track and in the gym. Thus when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals, the mingled roars of “I told you so” startled livestock on high country stations.
In hindsight, both sides of the debate made questionable cause and effect assumptions. R and R was based on the premise that we had to do something different because conventional methods hadn’t worked at the four previous World Cups. The flaw in this argument was that conventional methods worked perfectly well for the winners of the four previous World Cups.
England won the 2003 tournament by following the time-honoured formula of building a team around a core of world-class players, experienced, mentally tough leaders with a winning mindset, and giving them a game plan tailored to their strengths and the harsh realities of high-pressure, sudden-death rugby. Four years later South Africa dusted off this blueprint.
However, blaming the quarter-final loss purely on R and R discounted other contributing factors, such as complacency, refereeing and tactical naivety.
But rest and reconditioning didn’t deliver and accordingly was consigned to the dustbin of history. In this World Cup year the stars haven’t been granted any leave passes, even though Super rugby has been revamped with the apparent aim of making it more hazardous than ever.
Instead of being wrapped in cotton wool, the stars are dropping like flies in a fly spray advert, and the pundits are gnawing their fingernails at the prospect of the World Cup squad being cobbled together on the last-man-standing principle. If Henry was inclined to think back wistfully to R and R, he would have been encouraged by Springbok captain John Smit’s prediction that the World Cup will be won by the country that comes through Super 15 with the least wear and tear.
So, how bad is it? There was a weekend recently when 12 of the 22 players who lined up for the All Blacks’ last outing in 2010 were unavailable because of injury. Of the dinged dozen, eight had been or would be out of action for a month or more. That’s a fairly sombre snapshot, but the bigger picture is that six of them were back in action within a fortnight, and as I write five of the remaining six are expected to return in the next fortnight.
To put it in perspective: the deadline for the naming of the World Cup squad is August 22; at this stage no one has been ruled out. Sure, the clock is ticking for a couple of contenders, but most teams are likely to enter the tournament with one or two squad members coming off lengthy injury breaks.
Also, the nature of rugby is such that you could coach for a long time without ever putting out your absolute first-choice side. For example, the following were unavailable for that test against Wales last November: Israel Dagg, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Richard Kahui, Piri Weepu, Ali Williams, Tom Donnelly, Ben Franks and Corey Flynn.
As former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said of rotation, the policy of constantly tinkering with the line-up to rest some players and try out others: “Injuries are nature’s way of rotating.”
The injury crisis beat-up found a receptive audience because successive World Cup pratfalls combined with the national tendency to pessimism have turned us into a bunch of Chicken Littles who see a falling acorn as a harbinger of catastrophe.
That said, the time is fast approaching when it will be entirely reasonable to be afraid whenever one of our stars bites the dust.