In Auckland, the sense of anticipation is increasing by the day. It’s like the week before Christmas, but the whole country has turned into five-year-olds. On Sunday, New Zealand will finally contest another Rugby World Cup final.
In the lead-up, we have nothing but questions. Can the All Blacks finally shake off their tag as World Cup chokers? Is the infighting in the French camp a strategic ruse of Napoleonic brilliance? Does anyone have a funnier name than Piri Weepu?
But this weekend, we will have answers. After such a trying year for New Zealand, it just might be the most eagerly awaited day in the country’s history. And if you think that’s an overstatement, you don’t understand this country’s relationship with rugby union.
Even for a neighbour from across the ditch, New Zealand at World Cup time has been a revelation. Australians loves sport in general: we’ll switch up to whatever comes along, and leave it be when we’re done.
Australian rugby these days is almost a niche pursuit, sharing space with rugby league in the two states that favour the backward-passing variants. If the Wallabies won the World Cup, you would easily find people on the streets of Melbourne or Perth the next day who weren’t even aware it had been on.
It is also partly perceived as retaining its toffish Rugby School origins, given the support and recruitment that stem from many of Australia’s more exclusive private schools. A game for thugs played by gentlemen, goes the oft-quoted and poorly attributed description, and the latter part seems still to hold sway.
Here in New Zealand, though, it’s the game for everyone. Toff, bogan, Maori, pakeha, men, women: they live and breathe it. Embedded as I am with a Wallaby supporters tour, every person we’ve spoken to all week has known the results, the fixture, the scores, the injuries. Each has been keen to talk it over.
As we pulled out of a winery car park on the day of Australia’s semi-final, our van emblazoned with Wallaby flags and Qantas insignia, the two elderly women who’d been running the bar rushed from the homestead with an All Blacks flag held between them, and jumped up and down as we headed down the road.
And it’s the only such national obsession. There is nothing else in the newspapers. Nothing else on the radio. Every conversation starts and ends with rugby. It’s not just general competitiveness. Rugby defines New Zealand.
It’s really not that surprising. Our subject is a modest country of modest size, with a population the size of Melbourne or Sydney. Where Australia stands up and shouts for attention as a wannabe regional power, New Zealand doesn’t even bother. It just quietly goes about its business.
Rugby, then, is the only thing at which New Zealand is routinely better than the rest of the world.
Even sheep farming, the overdone Kiwi stereotype, is on the decline. As our bus driver Tony pithily described it, while there were once allegedly 20 sheep for each New Zealander, “a lot of them were paper sheep”. When the government ended long-running subsidies “those sheep just folded up and blew away”.
So national pride on a global scale is staked firmly on the All Blacks. It’s that that makes this final so important. For decades, barring the occasional challenger, New Zealand has had the best side in the world. They’ve been ranked No.1 for longer than every other country put together. They’ve been favourites going into every World Cup. And yet somehow, they’ve only won once, the inaugural tournament in 1987.
At the time, they would almost have expected it. They’d have thought it the first of many. In the 24 years since, they’ve lost one final, three semi-finals, and a quarter-final, while retaining their dominance in the four-year spans between each cup.
This record is a constant source of frustration for New Zealanders. More than nagging, it’s wet boot leather chafing at an open sore.
So here they are at last. A home final, a dominant team, and the chance to start putting things right. This is the right result. You want New Zealand in the final.
Of course you’d like them to be facing Australia, but in a way, this is perfect. No side would make Kiwi supporters more nervous than France. A highly rated All Black side versus a shambolic French outfit was exactly the equation in 2007 and in 1999. Both times, the French tipped the Kiwis out of the cup.
In a country where rugby success and national identity are so intertwined, there’s another reason why this win is important. The Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River mine disaster have made this one of the bleakest years in New Zealand since World War II. To become world champion would be some kind of redemption.
Canterbury Crusaders, the Super Rugby team based in Christchurch, became emblematic of the city’s resilience. The earthquake struck just one game into their season, rendering their stadium unusable.
The Crusaders became a team without a home. In between trips to South Africa and Australia, they played home games at Timaru, Nelson, Napier, Wellington, and even London.
They lost just four times for the season as they charged to the final. In their last two weeks they played a match in Nelson, a semi-final in Cape Town, and the final in Brisbane. Exhausted at the last by the thousands of kilometres travelled, they were eventually overwhelmed — barely — by a fresh Queensland Reds side.
That Canterbury team comprises the core of the All Blacks side who will run out against France. Israel Dagg, Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read, and Samuel Whitelock all played for Canterbury last season. Ben Franks and Sonny Bill Williams are substitutes. Injured talisman Dan Carter is also a Crusader.
If anyone had motivation to bring some joy to Christchurch, these are they. Of course one can’t write off the French — they’re a skilled and dogged side, with the tenacity to drag opponents into their grinding style of play.
But the head says that the All Blacks — the only team with commanding form throughout this tournament — should finally prevail. And the heart says it must be New Zealand too. This is their time, and they’ve waited long enough. Besides, the French still owe them a Rainbow Warrior.
If it happens, expect an unleashing of the tension that is still building. We’ll be there, in the cauldron of Eden Park, listening to the indescribable sound of 60,000 shouting Kiwis and a few hardy Frenchmen. The aftermath will be just as interesting.
Local papers are already predicting a baby boom at the end of next July. No doubt there’ll be some naming trends related to the night. Cory Jane provides options for either gender. Aaron Cruden’s last name could become a Beckham-style moniker for a new generation of bogans. Sonny Bill Williams? God help us. Both of Dan Carter’s names will probably get a look-in, despite him sitting out. For comedy’s sake, let’s just hope there are a whole bunch of kids named Piri Weepu.
Correction: This piece originally referred to the Canterbury Raiders, the copy has been amended to reflect the team’s correct name: the Canterbury Crusaders.