I’ve been to New Zealand once, a week’s visit to the South Island for a mate’s wedding that introduced me to the beauty of Queenstown, the warmth of the locals, and the unadulterated delight of Mac’s Gold, still just about my all-time favourite beer. Memories of the wedding are still vivid, memories of a night out in Invercargill a little less so; clearest of all is a conversation that summed up the central passion of the people of New Zealand.
My mate’s fiancée, well out of his league but besotted with him nonetheless, introduced me to her grandmother at a pre-wedding dinner; having heard I was over from South Africa, she had something she wanted to ask me. Smiling politely at a sweet, white-haired octogenarian, I waited for the usual question about pet lions in Africa, or riding an elephant to school. Instead, the little old lady furrowed her brow, looked at me, and asked why the Stormers were playing Corne Krige and Hendrik Gerber in the same loose trio when both were genuine opensides, and left the Stormers pack without a genuine ball carrier on the flank…
It’s a true story, and one that explained quickly and effectively just what rugby means to the people of New Zealand. We love the game here, and the national mood rises and falls with the fortunes of the Springboks, but until you’ve been to New Zealand and understood how rich a seam of rugby passion runs through the soul of the country and its people, you won’t know just how much a one-point win over Pakistan cricket’s rugby equivalent meant to a country that’s finally seen off the ghosts of World Cups past.
Sunday’s final was no spectacle, but then finals of any sort rarely are; there’s too much at stake to play for the crowd, and with rugby, the running game is quickly deserted for a war of attrition that has little concern for aesthetics. In the face of a splendid effort from the French loose trio, led by the quite magnificent Thierry Dusautoir, New Zealand just clung on, fending off both France and the choker tag to seal a win that might not have been fully deserved on the day, but was entirely deserved in the context of both the World Cup as a whole, and the quality of an All Black side that is without question the world’s best.
And so the perfect ending to a tournament that didn’t go entirely to plan, but which still managed to find its way to a fairytale ending. Ireland’s defeat of the Wallabies threw the expected quarterfinal line-up into disarray, Dan Carter’s injury started a flyhalf curse that had Grant Fox loosening up in the commentary box in the final, France stumbled through two defeats and an ugly win over Wales… but for all the sudden script changes, it was New Zealand in the final, New Zealand clinging on, and New Zealand lifting the elusive trophy for the first time since 1987.
There’s a strong legion of support for the All Blacks in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town; even those who don’t pledge their allegiance to a country other than their own felt a kindred spirit with New Zealand on Sunday. The Christchurch earthquake and the mining disaster had made 2011 a horror year for New Zealand until now, and nothing could have soothed the pain more than a World Cup triumph – just as nothing would have exacerbated it like losing at the death, particularly to hoodoo side France.
But even without the context of natural disaster, this was a tournament I wanted New Zealand to win if the Springboks couldn’t (a philosophy shared by Bryce Lawrence). Rugby defines New Zealand, and on home soil, with a tortured World Cup record, this was a tournament the All Blacks simply had to win. The modest scale of the Kiwi economy makes another World Cup in New Zealand unlikely in the foreseeable future, and the pride of a tournament at home made triumph non-negotiable. Had the All Blacks lost, New Zealand would have sunk below the ocean, leaving Irene van Dyk standing out above the surface.
In the end, though, they saw off the group challenge, Argentina and Australia, and then a resurgent France, to finish unbeaten, and send a small rugby-mad nation into euphoria. The celebrations won’t stop any time soon, and as streets get renamed after Henry, McCaw, Carter and Donald, the unlikely fisherman turned flyhalf, a country will revel in World Cup victory like none before. And in Invercargill a little old lady will nod, smile, and appreciate the win with the rest of a country that, much as we love the game, is rugby’s real spiritual home. Well done, New Zealand: you deserve every moment of this. But be warned. We’re coming to get the trophy back in 2015.