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Play-offs will be a new ball-game

This time next week we will be starting the build-up to a new competition. The phoniness of the pool stages of Rugby World Cup, where everyone builds up the minnow nations into something they are not, will be behind us and what is known as tournament rugby will take over.

Gone will be the polite praise heaped on losing teams for losing by only 30 or 40 points and “being gutsy to the end”. It will be play-off time, and in the words of that old Queen song, there will be “no time for losers”.

The losers in the knock-out stages will in fact be flying home, and from where I am sitting at the moment, thoroughly enjoying this World Cup and the Kiwi hospitality, that seems a big price to pay for losing a game. For most teams this event is the culmination of a couple of years of planning, so the stakes are massive.

That brings on a new type of pressure, and our experience of previous World Cups tells us that it inspires a different kind of rugby. Because they stand to lose so much, the teams become more scared of losing than hungry to win, and even those that do retain a semblance of ambition and adventure in their game start to modify it at this juncture.

Hopefully it won’t get as bad as it was in France in 2007, where the mantra appeared to be “play no rugby and you will win the World Cup”, but the likely changes to the nature of the contests do need to be kept in mind as we assess the prospects of the competing teams.

South Africa, for instance, are suddenly being built up as world beaters again on the basis of their last two performances – and yet those games were only against Fiji and Namibia. One of my columns that attracted the most reaction was written after a narrow scrape against Scotland in Edinburgh in 2008. It was entitled “We are not Romania” and it focused on those who reacted to the poor performance by saying “Yes, but we won”.

The argument was that South African rugby is too strong for there ever to be anything other than an expectation of victory when teams like Scotland are engaged in battle. That being so, big wins should also be anticipated when the opponents are ranked No 15 and No 22 in the world, as Fiji and Namibia are.

This is not to rubbish the Bok chances of success, for you can only play the team that is in front of you, and the Boks have been playing well. But we do need to retain some kind of perspective, and it is as necessary when the team is winning as it was when there was an over-reaction to the recent defeats in the Tri-Nations.

Let’s not forget the optimism that was inspired by the 60-8 win scored by the 2003 team over Samoa, and the massive disappointment when it proved to be a false dawn and Corne Krige’s team were smashed by the All Blacks a week later in the quarterfinal.

It’s simply a fact that Australia, New Zealand and England represent a completely different challenge to what the island nations or the other minnows do. And to beat them demands a different kind of rugby to what can suffice against the lesser teams.

What made me laugh this last weekend was the way some South Africans reacted to the All Blacks' win over France. One of the most prevalent lines was that the All Blacks had won well but the French were average. And yet these were the same people who felt an 87-0 win over non-existent opposition was something to celebrate.

I was at Eden Park so I can confirm that the All Blacks were not up against a weak team. The physicality, the pace of the game and the quality of rugby produced was the best of the tournament so far – and by some considerable distance.

But the game didn’t necessarily prove anything in terms of telling us how the All Blacks are going to react to the pressure of the knock-out phase. They have done well in big games in the previous World Cups and then spat the dummy when the pressure was on. The 1999 tournament, when they scored an excellent pool win over England and then lost their semi to France, is a case in point.

Confronting the pressure of facing their nemesis team early on leaves the All Blacks better placed than they were at a corresponding stage of the 2007 tournament, but a pool game does not bring the pressure that a knock-out match brings, as the teams do not have to confront the reality that a loss will mean there is no tomorrow.

Like the rest of the top teams, the All Blacks will have their mental readiness tested only when the day arrives, and that is what makes the next phase as fascinating as it will be fraught with tension.

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