Radio and television here are dominated by rugby union and there is a recurring theme: will this be the year when New Zealand, the hosts, end 20 years of World Cup pain?
There is not much optimism on tap. Graham Henry and his two assistant coaches, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, are being urged to field a full strength team against Japan on Friday and abandon their rotation selection policy.
The former New Zealand captain Wayne Shelford said he was dismayed by the constant chopping and changing of the team. Just as well he is not French, but the mood runs deeper than who should be on the wings or in the second row.
There is a sense of alienation here, a fear that a country once renowned for the way it produced players had effectively become All Blacks Inc. Investment that had once been used to water the grassroots was being concentrated centrally, weakening local identity.
One former All Black said over dinner on Monday night that the system he had played under had changed so radically that he sometimes struggled to identify with it. He watched club and provincial rugby but, not coming from a city, he felt no attachment to the Super 15 side in his region.
He had little time for the Henry triumvirate, questioning their man-management and what he saw as a tendency to reward favourites. He, too, despaired at the selection policy and wanted Robbie Deans, Australia’s coach, to succeed Henry after the 2007 World Cup failure.
Touring New Zealand in the past has been to visit a country that had an unshakeable faith in its national team. The All Blacks’ success record in international rugby is 77%, better than any other nation, yet even though under Henry that figure is better, more than 80%, there is little of the rippling confidence of before.
New Zealand do not lose many Test matches, defeats at home are scarce – only five in their past 59 Tests, and not one at Eden Park, where they would play any knockout matches before the final. So why the long faces in the land of the long white cloud?
There are questions over the fitness of some players, the form of others and a lack of alternatives to Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. There is a phobia of group stablemates France, the World Cup rock on which the All Blacks crashed in 1999 and 2007, and a belief that Deans will make New Zealand pay for overlooking him four years ago by guiding Australia to a third World Cup.
Yet Deans has been under pressure in Australia ever since taking charge after the 2007 World Cup, not least because of his nationality, and the Wallabies’ record under him has been mixed. He has had at least as many detractors as Henry and he does not have the same depth of players to choose from.
The lead article in Tuesday’s New Zealand Herald is an open letter to Henry telling him to “stop the rot of rotation”. At the top left-hand of the page, a puff for a story inside states: “Australia get ready to rotate.”
As for France, their coach Marc Lièvremont has fought battles with his players and the French media for most of his three-year reign. He was at it again after the weekend victory over Japan, sounding ever more like a man who is counting down the days to when he leaves his job.
And then there are South Africa. Peter de Villiers has survived any number of warnings from his employers to bring South Africa to New Zealand. Martin Johnson has spent much of his time as the England team manager fending off accusations that he lacked the experience for the job, and that he needed to shake up his management team.
Warren Gatland and Declan Kidney, the coaches of Wales and Ireland respectively, have had their futures questioned since their 2008 and 2009 grand slam successes and every step forward Andy Robinson has taken with Scotland seems to have been followed by at least one in reverse.
So who is in better internal shape than New Zealand? And who has home advantage? The All Blacks look to have more going for them than all their rivals, so why the introspection?
Samoa for the cup?
The opening round showed that the so-called minnows have grown in size since the inaugural World Cup 24 years ago. Samoa’s forwards coach, Tom Coventry, was on Tuesday asked whether his team believed they could win the Webb Ellis Cup.
“We’d like to make the quarter-finals,” he said. “The ultimate goal is winning the World Cup. Whether that’s a bridge too far, I don’t know. We’ll find out in the pool games. You have to realistic about your opportunities and where you sit in the pecking order, but certainly the victory over the Wallabies [in July] has given us a lot of confidence.”
Samoa have not played a Test since and they, along with Tonga, Fiji, Japan, Canada, the USA, Romania, Georgia, Namibia and Russia struggle to get fixtures against teams in the top eight of the world rankings.
The International Rugby Board says that will change from next year with the new tour schedule. Tonga came close to beating South Africa in the last World Cup but had not been sighted since then until last Friday’s World Cup opener. They deserve better.
Life’s a beach
Two South Africa supporters turned up in Wellington last Friday looking for a hotel in the Eastbourne area of the city that promised splendid views of the coastline.
They searched in vain for it until a local woman told them that there was no hotel of that name in the area. It turned out that the Majestic Hotel they were looking for was a few miles away, 12,000 in fact, in Sussex.