• Ian Hyde-Lay

Death Ground

The word, even on its own, packs a hefty punch.


Dynasty.


A team that, on the way to winning multiple championships, produces excellence over a considerable period of time.


Think UCLA hoops. The Boston Celtics, New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens. The New England Patriots and Soviet Union ice hockey.


Still, arguably the most successful sporting franchise ever hails from tiny New Zealand. Thousands of rugby union players represent their country with distinction for over a century. They are the mighty All Blacks.


Indeed, admired, feared, and respected over multiple decades, the Kiwis dominate the sport, their list of accomplishments at the international level beyond impressive.


The team, winners of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, 2011 and 2015, boasts a 77% record against all test opponents. 473 wins from 615 matches. In addition, it secures an additional 37 victories, in 45 games, vs various All-Star selections, in particular the British Lions.



And the list goes on. New Zealand jointly holds the record for the most consecutive test match wins by a tier-one ranked nation. Has been named World Rugby team of the year ten times since 2001. Furthermore, an All Black is voted World Rugby player of the year ten times in the same time frame, while seventeen absolute legends of the game are inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.


Incredibly, in the decade 2000-2009, New Zealand triumphs in an astounding 92 of 100 tests played. In 2013, the team prevails in every test that calendar year. Then, between 2009 and 2017, enjoys an unheard of 47 match home winning streak.

Not surprisingly, since the introduction of World Rugby rankings in 2003, the All Blacks comfortably occupy top spot the vast majority of the time.


Alas, trouble brews in paradise.


While public meltdowns and even national mourning are expected bi-products of any poor results by the All Blacks, the fall-out from New Zealand's current run of four defeats in five test matches sees the melodrama reach new levels.


A recent home series loss to Ireland, with the All Blacks sliding to an unheard of #4 world ranking, further sets the cat among the pigeons. The media and fans point to a host of problems, outline an array of issues. In particular, head coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane endure a firestorm of criticism and discontent. Two assistant coaches pay the price, are sacked. Selection issues, perceived arrogance, high error counts, defensive miscues, lack of a clear game plan, poor passing, ineffective kicking, are targeted equally.


Other commentators elaborate on a general malaise hovering about the national sport. Too much of the game is dull to watch, stop-start action dogged by confusing laws, erratic refereeing, interruptions by the television match official, lack of ball in play. By way of contrast, soccer, basketball and rugby league grow in popularity, each ticking boxes in terms of enterprise and entertainment.


Given this angst and under a cloud of disquiet, the All Blacks now face a harrowing two game, away series in South Africa. The Springboks, bitter enemies, reigning World Cup champions, promise to be a formidable adversary. Their game, built on scrum and lineout dominance, screams of sheer power, physicality, and brutality. Like giant boa constrictors, they literally strangle the life out of their prey.


Even the South African press corps pile on. Highly dismissive of New Zealand’s chances for victory, they label the visitors as imposters and no hopers.


However, I am not so sure.


In fact, despite a difficult ten months, the All Blacks’ side remains packed with speed, athleticism, and quality operators. As every elite-level athlete knows, regardless of the circumstances, in many ways it is easier to play when a decided underdog. Nothing more dangerous than a wounded, proud foe with little to lose, even when that person is working under considerable duress.


And so, I expect the Kiwis to produce a supreme performance. While just a sporting contest and so not literally a matter of life and death, for many in the squad it will feel that way. Foster’s career absolutely hangs in the balance, likewise perhaps those of a number of the players.


May they take comfort from Sun Tzu, the famous 500 BC Chinese military general and strategist. In his book The Art of War, he provides an analogy, the concept of a “death ground.” That soldiers, when completely surrounded and with no option to retreat, fight with triple the spirit of a normal warrior.


A recipe for success sits before the All Blacks. 80 minutes of ferocity. Attention to basics, attention to detail. Limit errors that lead to scrums. Ball in play to reduce the number of lineouts. Take all points on offer. Set piece basics. Accurate passing. Discipline.


Certainly, as the two rugby powers prepare to collide, from a New Zealand perspective the occasion creates a perfect tableau.


That diamonds form under extreme pressure.


A titanic battle is set for Saturday, August 6. In Nelspruit, a city in the northeast corner of the country. The gateway to Kruger Park.


A dynasty faces an exacting challenge. Yet, with it, comes an opportunity for desperate All Blacks to right the ship, to silence the wolves baying for blood.


As a result, bet on New Zealand to emerge victorious. 28-18.


You heard it here first.


Editor's note - South Africa 26, New Zealand 10.

Game two of the series will be played August 13 in Johannesburg.