Paul Thomas

It’s Our Game

Nov 14, 2015 | Canon Media Award 2016, Sports

And with a single result we were free.

The All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup triumph is laden with significance but perhaps its single greatest merit from the New Zealand rugby public ‘s perspective is that it delivers peace of mind: for at least a few years there will be no inconvenient truth challenging the narrative of our supremacy.

Victory in 2011 brought us level with Australia and South Africa in tournaments won but, unlike those countries, both our cups were won at home. Winning away in 2015 goes a long way towards aligning the All Blacks’ World Cup record with their overall record. Becoming the first nation to win both back to back World Cups and three World Cups has closed the circle.

If the All Blacks had come up short, the international rugby punditry would now be psychoanalysing New Zealand rugby seeking to identify the fatal flaw that stops the world’s best rugby team doing what the world’s best rugby team is supposed to do: win World Cups. Instead, all the talk is of auras and dynasties, of the mystique of the black jersey and the special men who wear it.

For instance, Britain’s Independent ran a piece explaining “How a tiny island of 4.5 million people came to dominate rugby worldwide.” There’s an echo here of then Welsh assistant coach Scott Johnson, an Australian, dismissing New Zealand as “a poxy little island in the Pacific” when the All Blacks rolled into Cardiff in 2004. He subsequently apologised, admitting that New Zealand is in fact two islands. And tiny compared to whom? New Zealand is bigger than the United Kingdom, slightly smaller than Japan, three-quarters the size of Germany.

As a general rule, sport doesn’t do happy endings. One thinks of Muhammad Ali, the most compelling figure in the annals of sport, ending up as a shuffling punching bag for journeymen who wouldn’t have laid a glove on him in his prime, or the incredible shrinking Tiger Woods.

Before Richie McCaw cemented his standing as the greatest All Black, that title was generally bestowed on Colin Meads. Meads was on the losing side in his last two series, against South Africa in 1970 – when his influence was curtailed by a broken arm caused by a deliberate kick - and the British Lions in 1971.

Another rugby knight Brian Lochore captained the 1970 team and the following year, with the series in the balance and injuries having depleted the All Blacks’ locking stocks, was cajoled out of retirement to play in the third test against the Lions. (He headed off to Wellington from his Wairarapa farm the day before the game leaving his wife a note saying, “Gone to play in the test match.”) The Lions won, decisively.

Thus another immensely pleasing aspect of this successful campaign is that it was a fitting finale for six great, long-serving players – McCaw, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Ma‘a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Tony Woodcock. Carter, Nonu and Smith will now accumulate euros in France; Mealamu and Woodcock are retiring. It’s widely assumed McCaw will also retire but, typically, he has held off making an announcement that might overshadow the team’s achievement.

As the All Blacks do, a point usually overlooked by those who complain about their place in our culture, these six men reflect the people and the land they have represented with such distinction. Their birthplaces range from Helensville (Woodcock) to Oamaru (McCaw) taking in the heartland in both islands. Wellingtonian Nonu is the only city boy. Only McCaw (Otago Boys High) and Carter, who moved from Ellesmere College to Christchurch Boys High for his final year, attended traditional rugby schools.

Coach Steve Hansen believes McCaw and Carter are the greatest and second greatest All Blacks respectively, separated primarily by the former’s unbelievable durability that has enabled him to play 148 tests in the most physically demanding position.

The years of combat, and the gym work required to prepare for it, have transformed him from the almost willowy youngster, his fresh face encased in headgear, who made his international debut in 2001 into a warrior from central casting, a barrel-chested slab of a man with a chiselled Mount Rushmore profile. While he invariably presents an amiable face to the media, his game face is a mask of steely determination. You know this man will be relentless, that he will pour every ounce of his energy and spirit into the contest. You also know that the men who follow him won’t be able to look him in the eye unless they do likewise.

And, inevitably, there will be blood. Former Wallaby flanker Phil Waugh paid McCaw what one suspects is the ultimate compliment among the fraternity of uncompromising, self-sacrificing loose forwards: “He is tough. Just tough.” In this sense, too, McCaw embodies the tradition. As a Scottish forward at the first World Cup in 1987 said of his All Black counterparts, “They wear their scars like badges of honour.”

Like McCaw, Carter is a South Island country boy by upbringing. But while McCaw has a timeless quality, Carter, with his model looks and urban interests and sensibilities, epitomises the new age All Black. Early on, former Crusaders and Wallaby coach Robbie Deans predicted Carter would be the David Beckham of rugby. That has come to pass, with the qualification that Carter is a far greater rugby player than Beckham was a soccer player.

Watching Carter pilot the ship through the knockout games, it’s difficult to believe that his form and fitness generated such angst only a matter of months ago. After the bitter disappointment of being invalided out of the 2011 campaign and spending much of the intervening period limping from one injury to another, it was heart-warming to see him not just play in a World Cup final but star in it. The term “fairy tale” is almost irresistible but doesn’t do justice to the strength of character required to keep chasing a dream that some were urging him to give up on and many more doubted would ever come true.

Mealamu, Smith and Woodcock are similar in that their position has always been secure, just as their qualities as rugby players and people have never been questioned. The exceptional figure in this sextet is Nonu who has surely been subjected to more criticism and given less respect than any other great All Black or, for that matter, the vast majority of those who didn’t attain greatness.

In its own way, his journey is as admirable as Carter’s since it involved developing as a player and person in ways and to an extent that once seemed well beyond him. He has been central to this team’s success through two World Cup cycles and was an absolute colossus in 2015. World Rugby anointed Carter player of the year, the business end of the World Cup clearly weighing heavily in their deliberations. With due respect to Carter, McCaw and several others – Jerome Kaino and Ben Smith come to mind, as does the invaluable locking combo of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – it would be a travesty if Nonu isn’t New Zealand’s player of the year.

It’s pointless to compare players and teams from different eras, especially if you’re comparing amateur apples with professional oranges. What can be said with absolute confidence is that by winning back to back World Cups and being the best team in the world in the intervening years, these All Blacks have ended the debate over which is the greatest team of the professional era. New Zealanders can be very proud of this group that has excelled on the world stage, not briefly or sporadically but year in, year out, and done so, what’s more, with unfailing grace, class and humility. For that and their near-faultless planning, organisation and execution, Hansen and his management team deserve great credit.

In the week of the final an Auckland University sociologist trumpeted a small, unscientific survey purporting to show a “silent majority” of New Zealanders didn’t care about the World Cup and don’t like rugby because of its position in our culture, but are afraid to say so. It seems a shame these people derive no pleasure from young New Zealanders doing great things in their chosen field and are left cold by the joy it gives their fellow Kiwis. But on behalf of the actual majority, let me reassure them that that’s their right and they can say what they like about rugby, the All Blacks and, for that matter, us. Contrary to what they seem to believe, we know very well it’s only a game. But it’s our game.

In January I concluded my 2015 sporting wish-list with the hope that early on Sunday November 1 a mighty cheer would ring out from Cape Reinga to the Bluff. That was certainly the case in my neighbourhood. An hour later a few blokes with electric tools were making a racket as they went about their various DIY tasks.

This is New Zealand. That’s the way we are.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.