Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 20 News List

All Blacks keen to lose `choker' image

BACKBONE New Zealand have lost games they perhaps should have won at the last three World Cups, and Australian supporters are looking to capitalize on that


Australian winger Wendell Sailor emerges from the dressing room for the Captain's Run at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney yesterday. Australia will play New Zealand in their Rugby World Cup 2003 semifinal in Sydney today.


The All Blacks arrived in Sydney yesterday facing fresh accusations they are rugby's greatest chokers.

The back page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper featured a picture of New Zealand captain Reuben Thorne under the headline the "choke's on us."

Former Australia coach Alan Jones went even further, telling listeners to his top-rating radio program that the All Blacks were haunted by some of their past defeats.

"I don't mean any offence when I say this," said Jones, who launched a similar attack on New Zealand's mental state in the buildup to the World Cup.

"But I just worry about whether New Zealand has purged themselves of those demons of defeat that have lurked around major performances that they have confronted in the last couple of years."

For all of New Zealand's proud achievements in more than a century of rugby, their recent history has been characterized by big games they have lost.

After winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987, the All Blacks have failed to win the title since, while their great rivals Australia have won twice and South Africa once.

The Wallabies knocked New Zealand out of the 1991 World Cup when they beat them in the semifinals then the All Blacks lost the 1995 to South Africa when they went into the match as heavy favorites.

But the darkest moment in New Zealand's proud rugby history was at the 1999 World Cup when they blew a 24-10 lead to crash to an unthinkable 43-31 semifinal loss to France that plunged the country into a state of despair.

Things did not improve over the ensuing years as they lost a string of close matches to their trans-Tasman neighbors, earning them the most loathed description in sport.

In 2000, Wallabies captain John Eales landed a long-range penalty to give Australia a 24-23 win in Wellington to secure the Tri-nations and the Bledisloe Cup for Australia.

A year later, giant No. 8 Toutai Kefu wriggled his way past two tired defenders to score in the final minute and give Australia a 29-26 win in Sydney to retain the trophies.

And in 2002, Matthew Burke kicked a penalty in the dying seconds to secure a 16-14 win for Australia, also at Sydney.

The All Blacks exorcised some of their demons when they crushed Australia 50-21 in Sydney in July then survived a late fightback to beat them 21-17 in Auckland a month later.

Australia's players have resisted the temptation to take a shot at New Zealand's recent record in big matches with Wallabies captain George Gregan saying they did not deserve to be called chokers.

"I don't think the chokers' tag is justified," Gregan said.

"They've won five of eight Tri-nations series since 1995 which shows the mental steps they've taken forward.

Meanwhile, Australia captain George Gregan has admitted the Wallabies have been playing below their best as part of an elaborate ploy to try and win the World Cup.

The Wallabies skipper confirmed what some observers had suspected all along when he said the defending champions had been saving their best for today.

Gregan said Australia had not deliberately lost any matches this year but said they had been holding back so they could try and spring a surprise on the All Blacks.

"It's not a bad thing not to show everything and we've definitely had our eyes on this period of the year."

The Wallabies have won five on the trot since the tournament began to reach the semifinals without too much bother but have failed to impress their critics.

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