We know that nothing worth having comes easy, but did it have to be quite that hard? Of course it did. It’s the Rugby World Cup. Back in 1987, the All Blacks might have won the thing by the length of the straight, but that was before the rugby gods cottoned on to the fact that an instrument of exquisite torment had fallen into their laps. Thus every four years New Zealand, the pre-eminent rugby nation, must go through hell.
We settled down to watch the final hoping the French would be brave but outclassed, looking forward to a walk in the park: no fuss, no drama, no finger-nail-gnawing anxiety, just the deeply pleasurable experience of watching the black machine roll to the finish line. Deep-down, though, we knew it wasn’t going to be that way. We knew it would be an ordeal. We weren’t taken in by the hype. (Given the media’s premature triumph-alism, it was bewildering the morning after to read a piece in the Dominion Post chastising “one eyed New Zealanders” for their “presumptuous predictions”.)
After the All Blacks crushed the Wallabies the previous weekend, we were told the cup was as good as ours because that game had been “the real final”. Furthermore, the French were unworthy finalists, having lost twice in pool play and struggled to overcome a 14-man Welsh team. Both these contentions were ludicrous. The final is the game in which the William Webb Ellis trophy is at stake; everything else is a prelude. When that match got under way, the Wallabies had left the country, along with the other 17 teams who no longer had a starter’s chance of being world champions.
The suggestion France didn’t deserve to be in the final brings to mind the climactic scene of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western Unforgiven.
“I don’t deserve to die like this,” protests Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, as he stares down the rifle barrel of hired killer William Munny (Eastwood). “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” growls the implacable Munny.
All teams had the same pathway to the final: qualify for the knockout phase, then win your quarter- and semi-final. The teams that did got to contest the final. That’s how tournaments work. Still, it is intriguing that France’s apparently shambolic campaign could culminate in such a powerful and committed performance. Once the dust settles, it will be interesting to see if there’s any substance to the suggestion the gulf between players and coach was exaggerated in order to create the misleading impression of a team on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
If so, they must be congratulated for almost pulling off the greatest sporting con job since Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope strategy to take down George Foreman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. If not, other teams should bear in mind that what works for the French is unlikely to work for them.
Nick Farr-Jones, captain of the 1991 World Cup-winning Wallabies, said recently that “what ends up on your rugby coffin is how you went at the World Cup. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s about handling the pressure and making good judgment calls, and if you’re not up to it, c’est la vie.”
The All Blacks were up to it. They overcame the potentially destabilising and demoralising loss of Dan Carter that left them having to do something that had never been done before: win the World Cup without at least one world-class inside back. They handled the pressure of the country’s feverish expectation, an extraordinary run of injuries in a key position, an inspired French side and their own demons. They did it the hard way, but they did it.
Perhaps a truly great team would have put France away in style, but greatness is a label affixed by historians. Late last Sunday night the scoreboard at Eden Park told us the 2011 All Blacks were world champions.
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