Today is a wonderful day to be a New Zealander. Like it or not, you can’t be a kiwi without being touched by rugby. For me, I’d grown up in Australia but my parents were always pretty patriotic. There really wasn’t much rugby in Perth but when it was on the telly, my dad did his best to explain the rules to me. For a boy who had grown up playing field hockey, it seemed bizarre. What do you mean the forwards do the defensive work and the backs are the ones who score all the points? I’d thought of joining a club before this but it took New Zealand’s 1987 world cup win for me to look up rugby clubs in the phone book and join Perth-Bayswater – the closest club to where I lived. I went from being a reasonably competent hockey player to one of the worst rugby players you’d ever hope to see, but I loved the sport. One of my enduring memories is when the world cup champion All Blacks came to our club in 1988. Apparently the club pulled off something of a coup by getting the All Blacks to visit us instead of one of the more successful clubs. I just remember seeing them get out of a bus and stand in front of the clubhouse and being amazed at how big they were – especially John Kirwan. The guy was a winger but stood as tall as the second rowers. They all seemed like giants to 16-year-old Bruce.
Although I’ve never really been any good at rugby, I’ve always followed the sport avidly. My first English teaching job was in Prague in 1995. With an English colleague, I watched some of the pool games at the French cinema there. I wrote the name Lomu on his whiteboard after Jonah Lomu singlehandedly ran over the top of the English team in that year’s semi-final. Unfortunately his students changed the L to a D, as domu means go home in Czech, so he never got the joke but I’m sure he would have appreciated it. In 1999, I assumed we would have no trouble against France and didn’t bother staying up for that semi-final. In 2003, we were certain to beat Australia so I went to the pub and ended the night surrounded by gloating Aussies. In 2007, we had totally smashed the French every time we had played them for the past four years so the game should have been a procession but I sat in my living room watching in horror as the French held us out for a whole half a match.
This year was to be different. This year we were playing at home. The All Blacks drew a relatively easy pool and had no problems beating Tonga, Japan, France and Canada. France? They were lucky to make the finals. They lost to Tonga and only got through to the play-offs because Canada had beaten the Tongans earlier in the pool games. New Zealand took a while to get on top of Argentina in the quarter-final but beat them handsomely in the end. France was lucky to beat England. New Zealand were fired up for their semi-final against Australia. They smashed the Wallabies in the first 20 minutes and that set them up to stay on top for the rest of the game. France was lucky that the Welsh captain was sent off after 20 minutes and they still only managed to win by one point.
The final should have been a stroll in the park for the All Blacks. They had beaten the French handsomely in their pool game. They had taken their closest rival Australia apart in the semi-final. The final was practically part of the victory parade. Of course it hadn’t been all smooth sailing for the All Blacks. Dan Carter, generally acknowledged to be the world’s best player, had missed pool games because of minor injury. Everything seemed under control but in the week leading up to the quarter final, he injured his groin in training (I know – had it been anyone else, I would have found it hilarious, too) and his back up, Colin Slade, is a talented player but had spent the whole tournament looking nothing other than nervous. To replace Carter, Aaron Cruden was called into the squad. He’s a young guy and full of promise. He was selected for the All Blacks’ early tests last year but his star faded and he was even dropped by his Super 15 team during the season. There are photos of him in the crowd during pool games with a beer in his hand.
Naturally, Slade got injured during the quarter-final and his world cup was over. This actually seemed like a good thing because of how nervous he had been looking and Cruden slotted into the team as if he belonged there. In fact, he made the backline almost all entirely from Wellington’s Super 15 team and they looked very confident (unlike in the Super 15, where they somehow conspired to be rubbish). Cruden was our saviour in the crunch game against Australia and pretty soon New Zealand was singing his praises. There were t-shirts and everything. And yeah, Stephen Donald, that villain who cost us the game against Australia in Hong Kong last year, was there but the coaches had the good sense not to let him on the pitch.
So we expected the French to put up a bit of a show on the final, but the All Blacks to eventually get on top of them and win by, I don’t know – 20 points or so. The All Blacks scored an early try and looked on top of the game except that Piri Weepu, the hero of the quarter final, kept missing kicks at goal. We managed one try and should have gone to half time leading by 13-0 but because Piri’s kicking was a bit off (and let’s not be too harsh – he was brilliant in every other aspect of his game) the score was, in fact, only 5-0. To make things worse, 34 minutes in to the first half, Cruden buggered up his knee and that clown Donald came on. Some of us would have preferred the All Blacks to have played with just 14 men. I mean this is the sort of thing people tweeted after the semi final, where Donald was on the bench but didn’t actually get to play:
But instead, he came on, played particularly competently and kicked a penalty which would eventually turn out to be the winning points. At 8-0 up, New Zealand looked fairly comfortabke because the French hadn’t even looked like scoring. Until, of course, they did score a try.And convert it to put the score at 8-7. I know of no other expression for my feelings than to say that I was shitting bricks. And I’d imagine the rest of New Zealnd was with me on that one. At one point, the French were awarded a penalty. Had they been successful, that would have been the game over for the All Blacks – they were at sixes and sevens. They didn’t look remotely like scoring. They were being outplayed by the French!
I wouldn’t say the French were the better team in this game but I would have a hard time proving the All Blacks were either. All I can say is that ther was great relief and elation when the final whistle blew and the French hadn’t managed to score more pints than the All Blacks. We cracked some New Zealand sparkling wine, went to a restaurant for dinner and ended the night with me trying to persuade my father that there really wasn’t any point getting into an argument with the bouncer at the wine bar as it really was pretty close to closing time. I’d like to celebrate all night but I suppose I’m expected to be at work
tomorrow this morning.