Groundhog Day

Everyone has a theory on the continuing mystifying propensity for the All Blacks, formerly the world’s greatest team, to not only repeatedly shoot themselves in both feet, but then to remove their socks and blow their toes off one by one.

The test in Christchurch was there for the taking in the first half. But poor discipline, together with an incapacity to adjust to the referee’s idiosyncratic style, brought them undone. This was compounded by the head-scratching decision by the coaching box just minutes into the second half to replace the entire front row, including the ABs’ most in-form player. From there, it was just a comedy of schoolboy errors, including the aimless pie-chucking of Codie Taylor into potentially match-winning line outs.

All the Argentinians had to do was to give their opponents the ball and watch them implode. Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t we seen this movie before? Ian Foster and Sam Cane are like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, reliving the same nightmare over and over. In this case, however, the adenoidal tones of Sonny Bono on the alarm clock radio were supplied by Michael Cheika.

Murray’s character in that movie was a cynical and self-obsessed TV weatherman feeling trapped in a job and a routine that he doesn’t particularly like. So he is forced to live the same day over and over until he finds his purpose. Ultimately, after much trial and error, he realises he has choices and he has agency. He can’t keep blaming his predicament on everybody else.

In the case of the All Blacks, there are any number of external forces they can point to for their Groundhog funk. There is the coaching soap opera, of course, but also the selection controversies (wings at centres, open-sides at number eight, fullbacks at wings etc;). There is the ageing of faithful old warriors and the apparent lack of equally competent young replacements. There is the argument that Super Rugby, particularly without South Africa, is failing to prepare them for tests. There is the raiding of NZ coaching and playing IP by cashed-up NH clubs and an associated thinning of development programs at home. There is mounting concern among parents about stories of premature senility in repeatedly concussed players. Add to that stale game plans, refereeing controversies and inconsistencies and the vagaries of the rule book.

The point is there is always something externally you can blame for the state this team is in, but none on its own explains it. If you held a gun to my head and told me to boil it down to one thing, it would be a failure of leadership across the board. No-one is taking responsibility - from the NZR to the coaching set-up to the players themselves. The feeling is one of drift. Like the Mary Celeste, the All Black machine is a pilot-less ship lost at sea. And the failure of leadership is creating a crisis of confidence, of second-guessing that led to the debacle on Saturday night.

In short, no-one is in charge. And it shows.

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