It was the denouement that nigh on every fan, analyst and pundit in the sporting world had expected with such confidence: Richie McCaw proudly holding aloft the Webb Ellis trophy in front of a raucous Eden Park, finally soothing the bitter 24-year pain of a proud rugby nation.
It was the moment nearly a quarter-of-a-century in the making as New Zealand strove for a successful World Cup campaign for the first time since 1987 – an intensified version of English football’s continued inability to recreate the glories of 1966.
Indeed for a country almost defined by its prowess on the rugby field, the protracted dry spell – and the accompanying tag of ‘chokers’ – ate away at every New Zealander’s pride and identity. A near-constant monopoly on top spot in the world rankings in between World Cups did little to satiate a nation’s hunger for World Cup glory, and so coach Graham Henry and his men embarked on their 2011 odyssey with the weight of history, and past failures, heavy on their shoulders.
Comfortable pool wins against Tonga, Japan, France (more of which later) and Canada may have caught the eye and set up a kind quarter-final against Argentina, but in reality did little to convince sceptics that this year’s crop of All Blacks were capable of taking that final, glorious step – unlike so many of their esteemed predecessors.
In 1987, when rugby union was still an amateur sport, the All Blacks produced a masterclass ahead of its time to secure the first ever World Cup, with a brand of rugby unrivalled by any other nation – certainly stratospheres away from those in the Northern Hemisphere, who were still very much indulging in the finest philosophies of the amateur game (of course some commentators would claim the group of England players involved in dwarf-throwing, late-night drinking, lewd name-calling and ferry-jumping have yet to make the transformation into the professional era).
But each and every World Cup since remains indelibly scarred on the nation’s psyche; in 1991 they were knocked out by neighbours and arch-rivals Australia (who, to make matters worse, won thanks to a try from inimitable loudmouth David Campese); in 1995 they fell at the final hurdle to a Nelson Mandela-inspired South Africa (and, in one of sport’s most fascinating conspiracy theories, to a waitress named ‘Suzie’ who allegedly gave most of the team food poisoning in the week before the final); in 1999 they were victims of one of French rugby’s beguiling and unexplainable renaissances that has become their trademark, as they recovered from 10–21 down at half-time to surge to a 43–31 victory; in 2003 Stirling Mortlock inspired the Australians to a semi-final victory (again, to make matters worse, this time on Australian soil); and in 2007 the customary four-year cycle of anguish continued when a shell-shocked New Zealand (playing in grey, as opposed to black, which seemed to capture the nation’s mood) fell once more to underdogs France.
With such an oppressive litany of historical failures, a nation understandably refused to think the unthinkable – as if it might tempt fate. But then sheer indisputable logic began to weigh in New Zealand’s favour; they were the number one team in the world, they were playing at home (where their record is formidable) and even the potentially catastrophic loss of talismanic fly-half Daniel Carter seemed to impact very little in the comprehensive quarter-final win over Argentina, and the emphatically cathartic semi-final defeat of old foes Australia.
Suddenly, all that stood in the way of New Zealand and their Holy Grail was a typically illogical French team, who they had beaten with ease just a fortnight before. Moreover, this was a French team who had suffered a humiliating pool loss to minnows Tonga, and whose route to the final was secured by victory over a haphazard England team, and a narrow semi-final win over 14-man Wales.
Surely, New Zealand’s time had come. Surely, this time it was simply impossible to throw away. Tell that to the French. A hazardously virile and competitive French team – playing, some argue, with a siege mentality after talk of splits between players and management, complete with coach Marc Lievremont’s assertion that the squad were a bunch of “spoiled brats” in the lead-up to the final – so very nearly tore up the script.
Determined to assert their presence, they dramatically challenged the famed Haka by advancing as a unit, and from the first whistle battled ferociously at the breakdown and showed flashes of Gallic flair with ball in hand. All Black scrum-half Piri Weepu – who took on kicking duties in Carter’s absence – spurned a few easy kicking chances in the first half, and his shakiness seemed to transmit through the team as the game wore on. Prop Tony Woodcock bundled over to give New Zealand a lead, and a penalty from Stephen Donald (who, amazingly, was their fourth-choice fly-half, and was called late into the squad, receiving a call from the coach whilst fishing) gave them an 8 point advantage with just over half an hour left on the clock. However, the colossus French captain Thierry Dusautoir (who put in a man-of-the-match performance in the 2007 game when France sent New Zealand home) went over for a deserved converted try to set up an almighty climax. Francois Trinh-Duc missed a difficult kick in the 65th minute that would have edged France into the lead, but their valiant efforts looked likely to fall just short. Indeed, referee Craig Joubert’s interpretation at the breakdown – including the customary ignorance of Richie McCaw’s notorious skill of killing the ball – left France with an uphill struggle. Just one more kickable penalty for France and the world could have instead witnessed another All Black meltdown.
Instead, for the French it was not to be. And for the nation of New Zealand a dizzying concoction of relief, pride and ecstasy is the culmination of a wonderfully organised tournament, which has seen them banish the demons of past traumas and write a new chapter in the nation’s history.