What the under-fire All Blacks need to learn from 2011 ahead of Pumas rematch

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It would be fair to say the All Blacks are under some of the most intense scrutiny in recent memory following their back-to-back losses to the Wallabies and Los Pumas.

Not that two of the squad’s key members have been paying any attention to the media criticism that has predominantly targeted head coach Ian Foster and skipper Sam Cane, though.

Speaking to media over Zoom on Monday, locks Patrick Tuipulotu and Sam Whitelock, the latter seen as the main challenger to Cane’s captaincy earlier this year, both agreed that the All Blacks are feeling the heat of public opinion right now.

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That backlash was exacerbated last week when Cane told The Breakdown that some Kiwi fans might not know as much about rugby as they think, but neither Tuipulotu nor Whitelock are listening to the external noise.

“For us as All Blacks, we always put ourselves under immense pressure,” Whitelock – who played in both of New Zealand’s 24-22 and 25-15 Tri Nations defeats to Australia and Argentina, respectively – told reporters.

“I think where we put ourselves initially, we always demand ourselves to go out there and play really well, and it’s on the guys who are selected to go out and do that.

“So yes, there is a bit of pressure there at the moment, but the reality is there’s pressure there every week.”

Tuipulotu, who featured against Los Pumas at Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium a week-and-a-half ago, echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“There’s always an internal pressure with the All Blacks standard and how we do things and I think that outweighs whatever pressure there is outside of this environment,” the second-rower said.

For Whitelock, the experience of losing two tests in a row is deja vu to some degree, given the 121-cap veteran is the only surviving squad member from the last All Blacks team to lose two matches on the trot.

Starting in back-to-back tests against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth and Wallabies in Brisbane in 2011, Whitelock, then aged 22, and his teammates succumbed to consecutive defeats, the worst possible lead-up to the following month’s World Cup.

The weight of expectation on that All Blacks squad – who were hosts of the World Cup, a tournament New Zealand hadn’t won in 24 years – was colossal and much more significant than anything this side is feeling amid their current rut.

It was during that period that Whitelock learned a lesson he still leans on to this day, and one he hopes will help steer the All Blacks of present out of this tumultuous period ahead of their final test of the year against Argentina in Newcastle on Saturday.

“I had a really good learning early on in my career. Playing in the ‘11 World Cup, it was a time where we hadn’t won the World Cup for 24 years,” Whitelock recalled.

“Our media manager Joe Locke and Jo Malcolm got in front of the team and said, ‘Look, there’s going to be a lot of criticism, good, bad in the media, so if you don’t want to read it, don’t [want] to hear what people are saying, just don’t read it’.

“So for myself, I read and look at very little media stuff, social media stuff, because as a younger player, I used to read all that and it used to get me up and down.

“How people were commenting on your individual performance or the team performance, I was buying into that where some games I thought I’d had a really good game, and then someone would say I had a shocker, and also vice versa.

“You’d go out there and wouldn’t be happy with your performance and someone would be saying you had an awesome game, so it’s people’s opinions, people are allowed to have their opinions and I think that’s great.

“I think that’s what makes New Zealand so passionate about rugby and sport in general, so it’s cool that everyone’s got an opinion, but for me, I try not to read it.”

It was three years after the All Blacks went on to break their World Cup hoodoo of nearly a quarter of a century before Tuipulotu made his international debut.

But, after six years in the national set-up and tasting defeat to Ireland in 2016, the Wallabies in 2017, the Springboks in 2018 and England in last year’s World Cup semi-final, the 27-year-old also knows a thing or two about facing adversity.

He understands the pressure that Foster, in particular, is under to finish the 2020 season on a much-needed high, and has vowed to do his best to accomplish just that – all while leaving a message for those who have called into question the All Blacks’ efforts.

“The coach is the face of the squad and he’s always going to be in the firing line, and if we lose two in a row, the coach is always going to get the blame,” Tuipulotu said.

“It’s on us to get a result and perform well, so when he is in the firing line, it’s good stuff from a good win, but it is what it is in this day and age, and you’re going to get a lot of ‘haters’, as we call it, but we just move on.”

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