Immortality at last for All Blacks

WITH a perfect sense of timing, today is a bank holiday in New Zealand.

Just as well. I couldn’t imagine too many turning up for work regardless of the outcome of last night’s World Cup final.

Win and the place would go ballistic, which it did — lose.... well the place would really go ballistic.

It has been a fascinating week here in Auckland watching the natives attempting to keep their feelings in check.

In the aftermath of that comprehensive win over arch-rivals Australia in the semi-final, there was an outpouring of emotions — relief, joy, excitement and anticipation. Last Monday the mayor of Auckland was toying with the idea of announcing details of a ticker tape reception up Queens Street for the All Black squad should they win the final. On Tuesday there was a debate in the New Zealand Herald as to whether or not the injured Daniel Carter would receive a medal if New Zealand finally regained the Webb Ellis trophy.

It took until Wednesday to realise that the French would actually turn up for yesterday’s final and then the nervous twitches became more noticeable as the unpredictable nature and history of New Zealand v France at the World Cup began to be dissected in detail. Surely they couldn’t choke again, could they? In the midst of all this, Graham Henry had to prepare his troops for the biggest game of their lives.

On the eve of the final, the legendary figure of former All Black captain Sir Wilson Whineray addressed the nation through the national media, offering a final team talk to the squad while the names of the 192 men who have represented the All Blacks since they won the World Cup in 1987 and who had their dreams shattered were also listed in full. If ever the weight of history was firmly placed on the shoulders of a body of men then this was the time.

In the opposite camp, the French only spoke about fate and destiny. If that was the criteria for deciding this tournament then surely it offered yet another reason in opting for a New Zealand win. In the end the French not only turned up but were within a whisker of pulling off the most improbable victory of all time. To lose a World Cup final by a single point must be the cruellest feeling in sport. Their outstanding captain, Thierry Dusautoir, led in the only way he knows how, from the front. France, their hunger for the fight, their dignity and honour questioned ad nauseam over the last two months but when it mattered most they performed.

To the victors however the spoils and who could deny New Zealand the right to carry the mantle of world champions for the next four years. In adversity they somehow found the inner strength, the reserves of stamina and the collective will to get over the line — just about.

Last night was my third time seeing this New Zealand side live at this World Cup and without question they were feeling the pressure. It didn’t help that the jinx that has followed the famed black No 10 jersey throughout this tournament struck once again. With Dan Carter and Colin Slade already in their civvies in the stand, to lose their third choice out-half Aaron Cruden ten minutes before half-time left them in disarray. His replacement, Stephen Donald, has effectively been out of the All Blacks squad for the last 18 months and has not played in over seven weeks. He looked at sea at times but had the bottle to slot the penalty that ultimately saw them over the line.

It didn’t help matters that Piri Weepu, who had been their rock since Carter was lost to injury, had a very poor game, contributing to the French try that gave them a lifeline early in the second half and missing all three of his kicks at goal. It meant that New Zealand were left trying to win a final that hung in the balance right to the end with the inexperienced Andy Ellis and Donald at half-back for the majority of a pulsating second half.

The net result was that New Zealand lost all their shape and structure in attack and against a white defensive wall as aggressive and committed as France produced on this occasion the opportunities out wide for Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui were non-existent.

What we got was a rugby contest of the purest kind where every scrum, every lineout, every collision and every inch of ground was fought for with every sinew of their bodies. On the final whistle both sets of players were out on their feet, none more so than the admirable All Black captain Richie McCaw. He had nothing more to give after a difficult few weeks where he has been unable to train and is operating at about sixty percent of capacity. That enabled Dusautoir to rule the roost at the breakdown for long periods but when New Zealand needed stability and leadership in the key last ten minutes; McCaw was the one to offer it.

For so long New Zealand sides have been driven by fear of failure. They have a proud rugby legacy to uphold and at times, especially at World Cups, it has weighed too heavily on them. Last night looked as if that might be the case again but, crucially, they held their composure and controlled possession when it mattered most in those tense closing minutes.

For me there is no disputing their right to this World Cup as they have been by far the best side over the last seven weeks and stand as the only unbeaten side throughout the tournaments forty eight games. They also proved that they could survive without Carter and with McCaw on one leg. In Isreal Dagg they continue the All Black tradition of replacing greatness — in the form of the 100 test veteran Mils Muliana- with greatness. Dagg is set to light up the rugby world for years to come.

It has been a privilege to be here and witness again first hand the love affair this country has with the game of rugby. Had they lost last night, on the back of the natural disaster that befell Christchurch at the beginning of the year, you wonder how they would cope. It really is more than a game in this part of the world. No wonder Graham Henry’s reaction at the final whistle was to declare that he can now rest in peace.

For the New Zealand players waking up yesterday morning, immortality beckoned. Today it has arrived.

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