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In search of Mana: New Zealand's World Cup obsession

By Phil O'Sullivan, CNN
  • New Zealand won the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, but haven't been victorious since
  • The All Blacks will host the 2011 tournament and head into it as favorites
  • Adidas caused controversy by charging more for the All Black jersey in New Zealand

Declaration of interest: Phil O'Sullivan is a Hong Kong-based New Zealander who's lost money on every All Black World Cup bid since 1991.

(CNN) -- There is an anxiety hovering over the whole of New Zealand this year.

It's a Rugby World Cup year and rather than revel in the build up to a tournament they are hosting, the country's four million rugby-mad inhabitants still struggle with the memory of what happened in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003.... and 2007.

It's been 24 years since All Blacks' captain David Kirk raised aloft the Webb-Ellis trophy at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. For a nation used to seeing their mighty men in black crushing all before them, cup years have proved to be chastening experiences.

Some even wonder whether the national side deserves the unfortunate title of World Cup "chokers."

You grow up surrounded by rugby and you come to love it because it becomes a part of you
--Wayne Shelford

Victory at the first World Cup was supposed to be a portent of further victories to come but, despite never having lost a pool game, the All Blacks haven't even been in the final since 1995.

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"1991 was a disaster, we were unlucky in '95, '99 was another disaster," said former All Black prop, Richard Loe. "2003 and 2007... they were both disasters too."

Hanging their collective heads in shame, the whole of New Zealand went into mourning after each World Cup ejection. The losses made harder to take as a gleeful overseas media, unused to seeing the All Blacks cruelly exposed, presumed it was a fragile national psyche rather than a better side on the day which got the better of them -- hence the "chokers" tag.

Despite spending huge amounts of money on an intense preparation, a carefully considered player rotation policy, a team psychologist and topping their pool, New Zealand crashed out of the last World Cup in the quarterfinals; their worst performance at the tournament.

The New Zealand Rugby Union ordered an inquiry which resulted in a 47-page report detailing what went wrong. Radio talk back and newspaper pundits railed against spoilt players, inept coaches, too many hanger-on officials and the usual gripes about blind referees and forward passes.

Since then, and as usual between World Cups, the All Black machine has been its ever-ruthless self on the pitch: losing rarely and playing with a pace, skill and power matched by few others.

Perhaps this is part of New Zealand's problem.

The New Zealand rugby-watching public has been spoilt by a 75% win record and an environment which keeps producing some of the best players the world has ever seen. Winning is taken for granted.

But there is something more to it than that. There is an almost spiritual element which surrounds an All Black side and those who wear the All Black jersey. It's a spirituality which extends to the team's fans.

For most New Zealanders, watching the All Blacks perform the famous haka before a test match is a spine-tingling moment. The players are warriors, preparing to play with passion and intensity on the whole country's behalf. To play poorly for the All Blacks is to appear cowardly in battle. It is to denigrate a long history, not to mention a hugely recognizable and now very valuable brand.

"You grow up surrounded by rugby and you come to love it because it becomes a part of you," says Wayne "Buck" Shelford.

Like so many other New Zealand children, Shelford started playing rugby from the age of four. He played 22 games for the All Blacks and was undefeated in 14 Tests as captain.

An oval ball is a big part of a New Zealand upbringing
--Richard Loe

In the French city of Nantes back in 1986, Shelford had one of the toughest games of his life against an aggressive French side. He played on after his torn scrotum needed stitches and only left the field when he lost three teeth and was knocked out cold after being kicked in the face. New Zealand went on to lose that game 16-3.

It came to be known as The Battle of Nantes. As much as the loss stung the New Zealanders, it invigorated the French who went on to the final of the Rugby World Cup the following year.

"We lost a lot of mana in that game," said Shelford and you can still hear the shame in his voice.

Mana, is a word of Pacific Island heritage and when used in relation to a person or a team means to be possessed of a special character or carrying great prestige. It is not egotistical, but humble, and only earned by great deeds.

For Buck Shelford, as a Maori playing in an All Black team that lost mana, it was a dark day indeed.

Richard Loe is a South Island farmer who played 33 games for the All Blacks before he experienced his first loss. A no-nonsense hard man, Loe was well versed in what are commonly known as "the dark arts" of front row forwards. His forthright opinions about the game are these days summed up in a weekly column in the New Zealand Herald.

Like Shelford, Loe began playing rugby on frosty grounds when he was four.

"An oval ball is a big part of a New Zealand upbringing," he said.

Becoming an All Black was something he always regarded as a privilege and he said his performance on the field was about maintaining respect for the black jersey.

"The jersey is more valuable to the person who is wearing it," he said. "It's not yours to keep. It's yours to wear until someone takes over from you."

The connection with the black jersey perhaps explains a public backlash this year when Adidas, a major sponsor, charged more in New Zealand for the latest version of the shirt than those available on overseas web sites.

A national icon reduced to a price-pointed commodity irked a public who see the black jersey with the silver fern over the heart as something that already belongs to them.

This can be a special team... it's within their grasp
--Wayne Shelford

It also shows that while rugby is a game which unifies New Zealand; it has also caused its share of division. Rising anger at South Africa's apartheid system saw that country's rugby tour in 1981 marred as enraged protestors clashed with police in violent street confrontations.

"Sport and politics shouldn't mix" was the cry from the rugby purists. But the tour left the game diminished until the World Cup in 1987.

When rugby turned fully professional in the early nineties, the game became a job and New Zealanders now ply their trade all over the world. Arguably, professionalism has weakened the game in New Zealand but the All Blacks keep winning ... except at the Rugby World Cup.

Both Loe and Shelford believe the All Blacks have learnt from where they went wrong in the past and if this year's team plays to its potential, they are world beaters.

"This can be a special team ... it's within their grasp," said Shelford.

He should know. A year on from that dark day in Nantes, Shelford was back in New Zealand, leading the All Blacks in the haka ahead of the rugby World Cup final.

A year after the Battle of Nantes, the All Blacks faced the French in the inaugural Rugby World Cup final.

"We were glad to meet the French in the final," said Shelford. "As a team, we lost a lot of mana in Nantes in '86. But we knew we had a chance to get that mana back."

The All Blacks won 29-9.

In 2005 the All Black team leaders consulted with Maori elders and came up with a new haka which they now perform ahead of selected Test matches. In a year when New Zealand suffered its worst ever natural disaster with the Christchurch earthquake, and the need to regain some much needed World Cup mana, the words of that haka must surely be an omen:

"All Blacks, let me become one with the land. This is our land that rumbles. It's my time. It's my moment."