New Zealand is arguably the most rugby-mad nation on earth.
And for the past month, the country has played host to those competing in the IRB Rugby World Cup. Yet while international rugby and the All-Blacks are essential parts of Kiwi life, the 2011 tournament carries an even stronger than usual meaning for in a country devastated earlier this year by the tragic earthquakes in Christchurch; as well as the Pike River Mine disaster in late 2010 and the recent oil spill in the Bay of Plenty.
Another kick in the teeth was the announcement leading up to the tournament that Christchurch would no longer play its intended role as a major host city. This was because the city couldn’t meet the required safety and infrastructure standards. This was devastating to those in the Canterbury area, whose lives and homes were destroyed by the earthquake.
While the All-Blacks entered the tournament as strong favourites, little had gone perfectly for them. Superstar fly-half Dan Carter suffered a tournament-ending knee injury on the training ground during the group stages. Captian Ritchie McCaw battled through foot and calf injury scares in the lead-up to the final, battering his way past the Wallabies in the semis.
By the time the final came around, the All-Blacks were the heavy favourites – stacking up at $1.09 minutes before kick off, while the Les Blues sat at a distant $8.
But the Kiwis had to do it the hard way and suffer a little more. Tony Woodcock’s try after 15 minutes relieved some of the early nerves, but wayward kicking from Piri Weepu – who had admirably took on the kicking duties in the wake of Dan Carter – and waves of determined French assaults kept the game on a knife edge.
The All-Blacks would soon resort to their fourth-choice no. 10, after 21-year-old Aaron Cruden was injured. Stephen Donald worthily filled the gap, and slotted a penalty kick before half time to give New Zealand an eight point cushion at the interval.
Yet Donald’s kick would be their last score, as a remarkable period of dominance from Les Blues produced an incredible half of rugby, with neither side offering an inch of turf. France’s captain, Thierry Dusautoir, with a heroic man-of-the-match display, opened up the All Black defence to score right beside the posts, presenting Francois Trinh-Duc with as simple a conversion as he could hope for.
What followed was 30 minutes of the kind of Kiwi spirit that has shone light for the beleaguered nation over the last twelve months. Les Blues battered and bashed their way towards the goal line, but the New Zealand defence would not fall again. They defended with everything they had, and desperate work from McCaw with three minutes on the clock forced a turn over, the All-Blacks managing to hold onto the ball for long enough to end their 24 years of championship drought.
Commendations must go to the French, who did more than prove their doubters wrong. They looked capable of causing the greatest of upsets, but in the end, the All-Blacks were too strong.
The nation of approximately 4.4 million has been gripped for the last six weeks more than ever by rugby. The sport means so much for so many New Zealanders, and there has been no more a time when ultimate success was needed.
I recently saw the film Invictus, which chronicles the World Cup win by South Africa, which was inspired by Nelson Mandela. In 1995, noone expected the Springboks to go further than the quarter-finals, yet they went all the way, narrowly beating the much-fancied All-Blacks in the final. At the Ellis Park Stadium, it was South Africa’s time, as both a team and a nation in a world of strife, to win the trophy.
The whole nation, in a state of turmoil, needed something to capture their hearts. In 2011, it’s New Zealand’s turn.
Shane Palmer is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.