The national surge of joy and goodwill generated by the Rugby World Cup is a precious once-in-a-lifetime commodity. Now we’ve got to figure out how to build on it. There can hardly be a New Zealander left who argues “it was only a game”. It’s not too much to say it was a milestone in our nationhood.
We showed we could host a global-scale event with confidence, competence and flair. The one glitch, with Auckland’s infrastructure, was quickly remedied. New Zealanders were warmly welcoming, the humblest provincial areas ebulliently taking teams to their hearts. There was not, as was feared, a wholesale fleecing of visitors. Police were near-ecstatic about crowd behaviour. Emergency waiting rooms were not overwhelmed with drunken fans, nor rape crisis centres with assaulted women. Ticket sales targets were met, friends and families created fun events around the games, and the mana of rugby was well and truly restored, finally laying to rest the divisive ugliness of the 1981 Springbok tour.
As for the “only a game” bit, the All Blacks won – but not just the game. They won hearts, because the more the country has come to know the individual players, the more an appealing modern ideal of the true Kiwi bloke has emerged. Sure, he is modest, rugged and near-impervious to pain, as in the old Pinetree All Black ethos. But now he is also articulate, charitably minded and able to talk openly about his emotions – even, like Piri Weepu, able cogently to discuss high match strategy while cuddling his infant daughter in front of a TV camera. He may even dress smartly, read poetry and wear – steady on – make-up. The ideal Kiwi male, as epitomised by the All Blacks, is an evolved person, who channels his natural aggression and competitiveness on the rugby field, but strives for a rounded life outside it. He may need to watch his drinking, but he’s hardly alone there. Perhaps best of all, he is gracious even when he, rather than the ball, is in rough play.
Stephen Donald, long the butt of puerile and spiteful social media attacks, endured with great humility and dignity the position of being the last, unwanted cab off the rank – and became the player who saved the day for us. The nature of that bruising win has a resonant symbolism for New Zealand’s global economic struggle. Despite confidence that they could continue to sweep all before them, the All Blacks found themselves simply battling to keep the wolf from the door. France had what it took to win the Cup. The All Blacks, fortunately, had what it took to stop them. Suddenly, however, it was all about fighting to safeguard territory, rather than being able to drive forward. That’s where we are economically – being driven backwards and scrambling to keep our feet against unexpected threats.
There are other lessons to heed. The Cup has been salutary for the media, which – while only doing their job – erred too often to the negative. Public indignation was palpable. And although rugby really was the winner on the day, the International Rugby Board will need to curb its heedless machismo. Those rapacious and heavy-booted decisions mandate a showdown, and the Australian and New Zealand rugby authorities show signs of gathering world support for a reckoning before the next World Cup.
But this extraordinary sporting event has brought New Zealand advantages beyond the immediate cash injection from foreign visitors. National goodwill and joy cannot alone pump up export industries, create jobs and increase wages, but this country was showcased to the world in the best possible light. And putting aside the prejudices that thrive south of the Bombay Hills, Auckland finally began the renaissance the politicians promised would flow from its amalgamation. After years of neglect of the central city, while disparate municipalities quarrelled and competed for kudos, downtown Auckland was restored to its rightful status. Its ravishing harbour and waterfront, its vibrant nightlife, its equable climate, its walkability and its leafiness were finally honoured as they should always have been. It’s a city with great potential to galvanise the economy and it’s time to curtail the regional jealousies and the begrudging of Auckland’s needs.
In the end, despite all the political eye-gouging and turf-warring over infrastructural spending, they did build it, and people did come. We have shown what a united New Zealand can do.