RWC Build-Up: Expectations and Omens

The first time Scotland played against Romania in a Rugby World Cup we won 55-28. That day John Jeffrey scored a hattrick and Gavin Hastings finished with 2 tries, 8 conversions and 1 penalty.

That year we also drew with finalists France 20 all and only came unstuck in the Quarter Finals when we met the tournament winners, New Zealand.

This may all seem like ancient history and the significance of us doing so well abroad may have long-since faded, but there are some facts we must embrace.

Firstly: Scotland played some sensational rugby that year. In New Zealand.

Secondly: Scotland crushed Romania and scored well in every group match. In New Zealand.

Thirdly: Since that day Scotland have never failed to make the Quarter Finals, even making the Third-Place Playoff in 1991 after narrowly losing a Semi- against England, 9-6. Who beat us in that Playoff? New Zealand.

If we heed the omens then the World Cup should pan out a certain way. Scotland should make the Quarter Finals, we should finish second in our group, we should obliterate Romania and New Zealand should prosper at our expense before securing a title on their own soil, much like in ’87.

A lot of pressure is on certain people, then. Andy Robinson will be all too aware that he has to safeguard Scotland’s notable Webb Ellis record. A nation assumes. However, this pressure pales into insignificance compared to the veritable Atlas Stone of expectation weighing on Graham Henry, right now. New Zealand waits with bated breath and ruthless desire.

It is no small wonder, then, when former All Black and Edinburgh ‘Gunner’ Dave Hewett tells me: “You bet we need to win this one – particularly as it is in our own backyard!”

As assistant to Todd Black at the Crusaders of Canterbury former prop Hewett has seen first-hand the way Kiwi rugby fans have been shouting leading up to this World Cup. Fans across the Islands have been turning out in droves for Super 15 matches, NPC games and anything in between. They are hungry for rugby.

“We as a national are building nicely,” Hewett tells me. “We had a bit of a hiccup with Christchurch being removed as a WC hosting town, due to the Quake. However I think the experience that people coming to NZ for the RWC will gain will paint us in a great light to the World as I place to visit.”

In this weighted answer the scrummaging guru has revealed his pride at being a New Zealander as well as his pragmatic side. Pragmatism and perspective are things that a coach in New Zealand in 2011 must have. Everyone wants, and reason can be abandoned sometimes, but New Zealand as a rugby nation must take stock before it plunges headlong into Fantasia.

“Rugby is going very well at the moment. It had been very trying due to the earthquake. Look at what we [The Crusaders] did without having a “home” venue to play our games. It made us closer as a team and it almost gave us an edge at the business end of the season.”

Indeed the Crusaders’ emotional resurgence following the Quake was one that every New Zealander could feel proud of and it builds into the expectation, pressure and fantasy of the NZ RWC. Belief and talent maybe had a bit to do with it, too. “We now have a number of players who are vying for a RWC spot in the AB’s following our season. The selectors will have a settled squad as of now but there could be the odd bolter!”

“There are a number of players who could leave a mark at the WC. You expect your experienced players to step up, but it will be the unknown, younger guys who will more than likely be the success stories – who that is I don’t know.”

Does such modesty belie the talent in New Zealand? Perhaps, as the nation expects for a reason, but it certainly does a mild disservice to the Crusaders players. Sonny Bill Williams will be in the squad and is believed to be Rugby’s next superstar. Rugby fans here seem to love him. Wyatt Crockett could well squeeze into a RWC starting spot as well and wing Zac Guildford is quickly becoming a global name. I renege on mentioning Richie and Dan.

So what does Edinburgh’s former loose-head think of Scotland’s chances and our talent? “I think Scotland will push some sides very close. Andy Robinson is moulding a very good unit. I think it will come down to the belief within the team.

“I also enjoy keeping up with what is happening, both in Edinburgh and Scottish International rugby,” he continues. “I miss my time in Edinburgh and have returned once for a holiday since I left. I am intending to come back soon with my family and catch up with the people we made friends with while we were there.”

Whether or not we have belief will be evident on Saturday against Ireland. Whether or not the performance is one to ‘keep up with’ will also become apparent. Perhaps precedence can propel Scotland and New Zealand forward. We will have to wait and see.

Until then, though, we can keep building expectations. They certainly will be Down Under and raw belief may ensure the omens are in New Zealand’s favour. Let’s hope they favour the Scots as well.

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.