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Why can't teams back up beating New Zealand at the World Cup?

The last three teams to beat New Zealand in the knock-out stages of the Rugby World Cup have lost their next game.

Australia beat New Zealand in their 2003 World Cup semi-final but then lost to England in the final.
Australia beat New Zealand in their 2003 World Cup semi-final but then lost to England in the final.
Image: Steve Cuff

JUST SEVEN DAYS on from producing one of the greatest team performances in recent memory to beat New Zealand, England are tasked with conjuring something similarly special against South Africa in Saturday’s World Cup final.

It’s a challenge which has often proved a step too far for teams who have conquered the All Blacks. As it stands, the last three teams to beat New Zealand in the knock-out stages of a Rugby World Cup have gone on to lose their next game. 

While Eddie Jones will be keen to keep any such negativity away from his players this week, it’s something which has surely been discussed behind closed doors with his coaching team.

Beating New Zealand can often feel like reaching the peak of the mountain, only when it happens in a World Cup quarter or semi-final, the team in question have to quickly come to terms with the fact there is another rocky incline lying directly ahead.

France famously failed to properly handle that challenge back in 1999.

The BBC reported Les Bleus’ 43-31 semi-final win against New Zealand as being ‘Without question the greatest game in World Cup history.’

Unlike Jones’ England, France had not been expected to trouble New Zealand in Twickenham, let alone spring an upset. That looked even more unlikely when they fell 24-10 behind. They went on to score 33 unanswered points with the comeback led by the inspirational Christophe Lamaison, the out-half who had only made the starting team when Thomas Castaignede pulled out injured. 

With the hot favourites suffering a shock loss, France embarked on a victory lap as they basked in the glory of their achievement. 

rugby-world-cup-2019-preview-package Fabien Galthié leads the crowd in singing after France's defeat of New Zealand in 1999 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

To everyone’s surprise, which seemingly included the French players themselves, they were in a World Cup final. After taking down New Zealand, there was no reason they couldn’t pull another rabbit out of the hat and beat Australia.  

As it transpired, six days after beating the All Blacks France barely fired a shot against the Wallabies in Cardiff. Australia played a smart game which limited the attacking talents of the France backs, while they also subdued a powerful France pack which had caused New Zealand all sorts of problems.

As the game wore on and France faded their discipline became increasingly problematic, and the winning margin, 23 points, was the largest ever recorded in a World Cup final. It was quite the reality check just a few days after one of their most famous wins. 

In the postmortem that followed, it was widely agreed that France had expended so much energy to beat New Zealand that they simply didn’t have enough in the tank six days later.

Australia appeared better equipped to deal with that challenge four years later.

The Wallabies were no strangers to beating New Zealand. When they met their neighbours in the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup, Australia had won four of the last seven encounters between the teams, although New Zealand had won the two most recent meetings earlier that year.

Despite being the reigning World Cup champions and winning all of their pool games, in the lead-up to Australia’s semi-final clash against New Zealand in Sydney, the All Blacks were so heavily fancied that some bookmakers reported that they hand’t been receiving any bets on a home win.

What transpired was strikingly similar to what we saw between England and New Zealand last weekend. Australia stormed into a 13-0 first-half lead, and instead of letting their foot of the gas they dominated possession and ran out comprehensive winners on a 22-10 scoreline.

rugby-union-world-cup-2003-semi-final-new-zealand-v-australia Australia celebrate their win against New Zealand at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Source: EMPICS Sport

It was labelled a tactical masterclass. The mastermind in the Australia coaching box? A certain Eddie Jones.

They went on to face England in a tense final seven days later. Australia started well, taking the lead with a Lote Tuqiri try after just six minutes, but England fought back with a Jason Robinson try just before half-time. Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley both kicked four penalties, with the sides only separated by Wilkinson’s last-ditch drop goal in extra-time. 

Australia couldn’t be accused of not turning up, but the efforts required to beat New Zealand had taken a toll. England, by comparison, had beaten France 24-7 in a semi-final ruined by howling winds and heavy downpours.

New Zealand’s bad run of results at the World Cup continued four years later, and it was France who once again dumped out the All Blacks, with the upset this time coming in the quarter-finals.

It had become a familiar scene. New Zealand entered the game as heavy favourites having scored 46 tries across their pool campaign, but left Cardiff shell-shocked after a superb France team defied the odds with a brilliant team performance.

A Dan Carter penalty and Luke McAllister try was all that New Zealand managed to put on the scoreboard despite dominating possession and territory in the first half, and when McAllister was sin-binned after the restart France started to take control of the game.

Thierry Dusautoir crossed to bring France withing touching distance, and while a Rodney So’oialo try gave New Zealand some breathing room, Yannick Jauzion scored France’s match-winning try after Lionel Beauxis nailed a penalty.

France had shocked the World Cup for the second time in eight years.

rugby-union-irb-rugby-world-cup-2007-quarter-final-new-zealand-v-france-millennium-stadium New Zealand's Rodney So'oialo is surrounded by celebrating France players after their World Cup quarter-final in 2007. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Their reward was a semi-final date with England at the Stade de France a week later.

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And after all the plaudits France received for their work-rate and application against the All Blacks, it took England just 78 seconds to break through the France defence and score the game’s opening try. France fought back to take a slim lead, before Wilkinson saw England over the line with a penalty and drop goal in the last five minutes.

France were stunned, with Sebastien Chabal seen in tears following the final whistle. For the second time in three World Cups, France had beaten New Zealand only to fall flat a week later. Fabien Galthie, France captain in 2003, later claimed that some within the squad believed head coach Bernard Laporte had dedicated too much time to the physical side of things.

They became the third successive team to fail in their bid to back up beating the All Blacks in the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

So, how do England buck the trend this time around?

While it would be a stretch to call England underdogs last week, their win against New Zealand – and in particular their outright dominance – was a massive result for the team, and one of the great milestones in Jones’ coaching career.

The problem with beating New Zealand at a World Cup without it being in the final, is that the demands of doing so, and sometimes the reaction afterwards, can make the game feel like a final in itself.

Take something as simple as England’s ‘V formation’ to face the Haka last Saturday. Is there any other fixture where England would dedicate any time towards planning a pre-match routine aimed at gaining some sort of mental advantage over the opponent?

How do you tell players to keep their heads down and focus on the next game after a performance like that?

How do you prevent the feeling of ‘if we can beat New Zealand, we can beat anyone’ from turning into complacency?

It’s a topic that has come up repeatedly over the last few days. 

Martin Johnson, captain of England’s World Cup winning team in 2003, warned that: “The massive trap for this team is thinking, ‘turn up and do that again, we’ll be all right’.”

Few are better placed to negotiate that challenge then Jones, who saw first hand what beating the All Blacks had taken out of his Australia team when they lost the 2003 final.

Those memories will have felt surprisingly fresh this week.

He won’t need to be reminded that successfully managing the mental preparation will be just as important as anything England do on the pitch.

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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