PARIS, France — The shock was evident on the faces of the All Blacks at full time. Over the next 24 hours after their semifinal defeat to England in Yokohama at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the disbelief abated, and was replaced by pain and heartbreak.
It wasn’t something the All Blacks were used to; just a week after they dismantled Ireland in the quarterfinals, England put in a performance for the ages to knock New Zealand out of the tournament many fancied they’d win.
The atmosphere around the All Blacks camp an hour or so after that defeat was tense and agitated. The great Kieran Read was in his final tournament for New Zealand, it was Steve Hansen’s last in charge of the All Blacks. Read looked shell-shocked, Ian Foster sat there head down while Hansen did his best to take the shots.
But there was one question which Hansen took umbrage to: whether the All Blacks had lacked hunger. Read gave his answer, and then Hansen took it up. He told his team to be hungrier at half-time, not saying they lacked hunger. He asked the reporter if he’d want to meet him outside for a “rugby education.” and said it was a “pretty average question.” The message was clear: come at us with criticism for the defeat, but don’t you dare question our hunger.
Four years on and as they prepare to face Argentina on Friday in Paris, those feelings of hurt and missed opportunity have been touched on. Like 2019, New Zealand are preparing for a semifinal off the back of a huge win over Ireland. Just 12 players feature in Friday’s side from the one the matchday squad named for England in 2019, when the defeat was as much an afront to their own personal ambition as it was their collective pride.
Some teams — like England — have tried to move away from any revenge narrative this week. Rassie Erasmus said England will have “beef” from losing the World Cup final to South Africa in 2019, but Steve Borthwick’s new-look team have dodged any and all notions of there being a payback narrative running underneath this game: new team, fresh opportunity.
But for the All Blacks, that’s not in their DNA. When they won the World Cup in 2011, they drew on their quarterfinal heartbreak in 2007. And this week, as they prepare to face the Pumas, they’ve touched on the desolation of four years back. Players come and go, values and expectations remain the same.
“There’s plenty of us who have that hurt and some scars from 2019,” All Blacks captain Sam Cane said Wednesday.
“We’ve had that chat as a group. There are two very different Mondays we can turn up for next week and one of them is horrible. It’s about having the ability to turn up mentally right on the edge. We feel we’re in a good spot, but we’ve got to go again.”
Looking back now, Scott McLeod, All Blacks assistant coach, says the coaching group has learnt from where things went wrong four years back.
“In 2019 we didn’t do that as well in our week leading into England,” McLeod said. “It’s not necessarily the opposition, it’s the quality of what we put into the week.
“Now, there were a couple of bits and pieces from there; our captain Kieran Read couldn’t train, there were disruptions. And we build the week with the quality and the focus we did last week.”
Aaron Smith remembers the brutal meeting the players in the days after that defeat to England. Tears were shed, and there was a collective vow to never feel like that again as a group. He says feeling that pain again has helped the group reset after their win over Ireland last weekend.
“I’m an emotional person and I use things to fuel me,” Smith said. “I remember being in the same position four years ago and we didn’t get it right that night. The messaging this week has been about taking those learnings.”
But they’ve also made a collective decision to draw a line on what happened four years ago.
“The talk about 2019 we covered off in a small amount of time,” Foster said. “It is not lingering in our mind.”
Foster’s message to the players is simple: ensure there is a “tomorrow” after they play the Pumas on Friday. As a group they don’t want to be back playing in the bronze medal match — as Dane Coles said earlier in the week, the build-up to playing in that game is a “s— week.” So it’s a case of living in the present, compartmentalising previous heartbreak, but also learning from the past.
“Most of the lessons we got out of 2019 have been taken on board,” Foster said. “We make sure we go back and revisit what were the keys and we have done that.
“Where I’m really proud of this group is that they are just loving being here and where they are at right now. The hardest thing to do in sport is to stay in the now, just to nail the thing in front of you. There is so much talk about the past and the future and the hardest thing is not to allow yourself to get distracted by those two conversations, but just to be the best you can be right now.
“We are working hard at that and that’s the coaching group as well. I’m incredibly proud of the way the players are dealing with that. They are not getting distracted by being too confused by lessons of the past.
“We want to show we can deal with the challenges in front of us one at a time and just keep growing as a group.”