The morning after the big night before, the All Blacks found themselves in familiar territory, heading to the Rugby World Cup semi-finals with everyone gushing about their latest performance.
New Zealand’s Nehe Milner Skudder celebrates scoring a try during a New Zealand v France IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Quarter Final at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, October 17, 2015. Photo/REUTERS
New Zealand’s 62-13 thrashing of France in the quarter-final in Cardiff not only assured the All Blacks of a trip to London for next weekend’s semis but also removed any doubt about their status as favourites to win the tournament.
The defending champions had been below their best in the pool phase but their nine-try romp over France proved what everyone had suspected all along — they were foxing.
The All Blacks have learnt the hard way that the trick to winning World Cups is to save you best for last and not take anything for granted.
New Zealand have made the semi-finals in six of the seven previous rugby World Cups, but only gone on to win the title twice, in 1987 and 2011, both on home soil.
On almost each occasion, they have been the overwhelming favourites to win, but the heavy burden of expectation has proved fatal before, and the New Zealand team management are wary about the pitfalls of complacency.
“All we have done is earn the right to go training on Monday,” the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen barked.
“We haven’t won the thing, so we can’t get too excited. That would be pointless.”
Despite winning the first (1987) and last (2011) World Cups, New Zealand remain driven by their past failures.
They went 24 years between titles and no team face more scrutiny than them, whether they are heaped with lavish praise or reminded of their past failures.
Of the six previous semi-finals they have played, New Zealand have won three and lost three. They were beaten by Australia in 1991 and 2003 and France in 1999, in what was one of the great shocks in the tournament’s history.
They also won their semi-final in 1995 but lost the final to South Africa in extra-time, a defeat that still hurts the Kiwi nation to this day.
Next week, the All Blacks will face South Africa again, at Twickenham. Once again, they are in the familiar positions as favourites but every wary of a Springboks team they know will plotting their downfall.
“I have learned the hard way that you don’t get ahead of yourself,” New Zealand captain Richie McCaw said.
“We have played a grand final (against France) and we have another chance of a grand final next week. Then we will get another chance after that if we do it right.”
Ma’a Nonu, another veteran who has experienced all the highs and lows of being in the All Blacks pressure-cooker, was also keeping a lid on the rising expectations.
“The performance was down to game plan and individual instincts,” the centre said.
“It was a bit frustrating during the pool stages, trying to put our structure together. In a crunch match like that, anything can happen. It can swing either way.”