As Namibia lock PJ Van Lill rose to claim the lineout he began to topple over. He lurched to a 40 degree angle and was only saved by the strength of the two props holding him airborne.
The ball, which Van Lill had completely forgotten about, rolled apologetically away.
Yet it wasn’t scooped up by a waiting All Black because, worryingly, this was in the warm-up.
At the other end of the Olympic Stadium pitch the All Blacks were running through intense, perfect running patterns and it was not difficult to feel rather sorry for the Namibians picking Van Lill up off the turf.
The pattern continued when the match kicked off. New Zealand had the try-bonus point wrapped up by the 32nd minute and seemed well set for a century. Steve Hansen’s reserve XV were proving a point, with Sonny Bill Williams and Nehe Milner-Skudder particularly impressive.
But then it happened. They had been growing into the match and in the 50th minute Namibia went for the corner rather than rely on the boot of Theuns Kotze, which had been working so well. They worked the ball right, then left, and centre Johan Deysel bumped off two would-be tacklers and went over to spark wild celebrations.
New Zealand stretched away at the end, as you would expect, but after Japan’s exploits this was another powerful riposte to those who say we should end the days of the underdog at the World Cup.
The arguments are simple. Why should we turn up to games where we already know the winners? Why should Namibia’s amateurs — and there were eight of them in the squad last night, including a diamond trader, a dentist and two farmers — be put through this? Why is the tournament 20 teams rather than 16?
Well, there are three reasons.
The first is because of the amateurs and the stories they have to tell. Take Johnny Redelinghuys, the prop who was devastated to be left out of Namibia’s 23 last night. A steel-worker by trade, he completes a round-trip of 160km to each training session. For the last few months those sessions have been held at 5am or 7pm, to allow the part-timers to make it.
On the morning of Namibia’s game with Kenya earlier this year, Redelinghuys received a call saying he had to attend to an emergency on a farm 250km away. He made it, fixed the emergency, got lost in the bush on the way back, arrived five minutes before kick-off, scored two tries and was Man of the Match.
In the days of ultra-professionalism — and New Zealand, with their Adidas apparel which claims to be ‘the blackest black ever’, are the epitome of this — we should value that link to rugby’s amateur era.
Secondly, teams such as Namiba will not improve unless they are exposed to the game at the highest level. Japan, remember, were hammered 145-17 by the All Blacks in 1995. Now the conquerors of the mighty Springboks, we await to see what kind of tournament they will host in four years time.
In 2003, Namibia lost 142-0 to Australia, a score which was never threatened last night.
As with teenage boys, getting hammered is an essential part of rugby’s learning process.
Thirdly, entertaining the idea of trimming the underdogs should make us question whether we want our sport to be a global one. Namibia, Uruguay, Canada and Romania would be the four that miss out if the tournament were reduced to 16 sides; or, in other words, the second best team in Africa, South America, North America and Eastern Europe.
As rugby attempts to enter a brave new era with Olympic Sevens changing the profile of the sport in markets such as the USA, we should be wary of such a move.
Also, without Namibia we would not have the peerless Jacques Burger on the international stage. The Saracens flanker is one of the most inspirational characters in the game and was a one-man wrecking ball here, although it was always going to be in vain.
The highlight of the first-half was an outrageous offload by Sonny Bill Williams for Malakai Fekitoa to score, while Nehe Milner-Skudder scored two fine tries.
The highlight of the second was undoubtedly Deysel’s try for Namibia. They may not have emulated Japan in winning, but after such worrying initial signs this was another powerful day for the underdog.
New Zealand scorers:
Tries: Vito, Milner-Skudder 2, Fekitoa, Barrett, Savea 2, B. Smith, Taylor. Cons: Barrett 5. Pens: Barrett.
Slade, Milner-Skudder, Fekitoa, Williams, Savea, Barrett, Perenara, B. Franks, Taylor, Faumuina, Romano, Whitelock, Kaino, Cane, Vito.
B. Smith for Slade (52), Nonu for Williams (63), Kerr-Barlow for Perenara (49), Crockett for Faumuina (64), Read for Whitelock (57), McCaw for Kaino (65).
Tries: Deysel. Pens: Kotze 3.
Tromp, Philander, Greyling, Deysel, Marais, Kotze, Jantjies, Engels, van Jaarsveld, Coetzee, van Lill, Uanivi, Burger, du Plessis, Damens.
Botha for Philander (45), Buitendag for Jantjies (74), van der Westhuizen for van Jaarsveld (75), Larson for Coetzee (57), Kitshoff for van Lill (64), Venter for Burger (66), Bothma for Damens (45). Referee: Romain Poite (France).
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