All Blacks hope trial
will cut out error
But bad? Bad was the fading light on the first age of Graham Henry. Bad was the record of Wales under Steve Hansen. Bad was much about England before the age of Sir Clive. The New Zealand All Blacks have blips, but to call them bad is sad and a tad mad.
Under John Mitchell, the All Blacks went all reclusive in the World Cup. They shut themselves away in Melbourne and presented themselves as slaves to a surly school of public relations. And we were supposed to be shocked? For as long as New Zealand have been the most formidable force in world rugby - so we're talking long periods - they have hardly ever exactly been masters of geniality.
A party for the All Blacks is meeting a few natives behind the stand at Stradey Park. Oh, this must have been about 15 years ago. Some of the local Llanelli lads, see, thought they would put Kiwi 'ardness to the test. Thus, after a beer or two, they 'offered them out'. And into the gloom of the night they all went - the fair-sized corps representing Welsh hospitality and a couple of Otago farmers. It was, apparently, swift. The outnumbered All Blacks left their hosts rearranged in a neat pile.
Tapping into the innate ruggedness of the New Zealand rugby player is one of the tasks for the new coaching team of Henry, Hansen - yes, them - and Wayne Smith. Barely in office, they are pitched against England. Henry against Sir C. (It would have been good, at the end of a World Cup season, to let the field lie fallow and save this for the All Blacks against the British Isles in 2005, but commerce rules.)
And therein lies the problem. Henry could find all the aggression he needs in an All Blacks forward simply by picking second row Troy Flavell. Remember him? He is the one who spent a whole afternoon last December beating up as many English forwards as he could. Nothing wrong in that, except that it was a Barbarians game and the order of the day was for something more wholesome and celebratory at the home of the newly crowned world champions.
Oh and I do believe the good Troy has been involved in one of those scrapes that may have been folkloric in the good old days, but which nowadays reflects only crudely on the national sport of New Zealand. That is the very problem: rediscovering core values and yet keeping the image-conscious sponsors and parents and administrators and politicians sweet.
Smith, who, like Hansen, is back after a coaching spell in Britain, knows that England have advanced by tightening up, while New Zealand have slipped back by loosening their game. As nursery grounds for international rugby, the Zurich Premiership and Heineken Cup have emerged as more fertile than the Super 12; not as flowery, but providing better timber.
After his time with Northampton, Smith is fully qualified to say of the English game: 'There's a toughness up there - a real resilience that comes from the number of games they play and from the style of game they play. They're tough.'
It will be intriguing to see how the new coaches of the All Blacks work together. All three of them gained experience - and were bruised by it - over here. Henry with Wales began with the flourish of a redeemer and ended in a cubby-hole of introspection, a hermit who made Mitchell look like George Foreman trying to sell you a sausage sizzler.
Hansen laid solid foundations post-Henry in terms of fitness and personal responsibility, but his Wales simply could not win matches. Smith took Northampton to within sniffing distance of the incense, but his Saints always ended up on their knees, short of the altar.
The good that they did was to instil southern-hemisphere values in their charges. It just so happened that Sir Clive was doing something extra in Camp England. Teak toughness plus precision and patience won the World Cup.
The All Blacks are now having to readjust. Their work begins on Tuesday with a good old-fashioned trial. Keep an eye on Mose Tuiali'i at No 8 for the Probables and Sam Tuitopou in the Possibles centre.
It is the start of the second age of Henry. Do not expect him to be gushing at the post-match press conference. That really would be too much. To hear the hermit say that he was pleased to be on the road to catching up with England might be the first sign that things really are bad in New Zealand.