My friends ask me why I’m a fan of the All Blacks?
“You’re not from New Zealand and they always win. There’s no fun in that”, say the Man United fans.
What endeared me to this team? I thought about this earlier in the week when I saw pictures of the All Blacks squad visiting Joost Van Der Westhuizen prior to the game against South Africa in Johannesburg. Part of my fascination with them is that despite their domination of world rugby they have only won one World Cup in my lifetime.
Usually what would spark this piece would be Richie McCaw’s record-breaking number of caps today but instead what struck me in the build up to this Test was the respect shown by the All Blacks squad in visiting a former opponent. Van Der Westhuizen is sadly suffering from motor neuron disease but it was great to see him able to pose for pictures with his old foes. He was the best nine I’ve seen play the game.
My reasons for supporting the All Blacks are intertwined with my introduction to the sport. My first memories of rugby come from the 1995 World Cup. They involve Jonah Lomu, Nelson Mandela and the Springboks as World Champions. The images of Lomu steam-rolling England in the semi-final are forever part of the sporting tapestry that hooked me as a child.
My obsession with the All Blacks was cemented in 1997 when they came to play a test match against Ireland. The day after their 63-17 hammering of their hosts I went up to UCD where they were training with my autograph book. I hoped to get the signatures of the players I controlled daily on my Playstation in Jonah Lomu Rugby: Zinzan Brooke, Andrew Mehrtans, Jeff Wilson, Josh Kronfield, Ian Jones and Frank Bunce. I had even reversed their fortune in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final against South Africa in Classic Match mode. That was the power of a kid’s imagination and computer games.
They were more impressive in real life. They burst tackle bags with an intensity that was mesmerising. The bags put up more opposition than Ireland had managed the day before. After they’d finished their training session I tentatively approached the Canterbury t-shirt wearing giants. While Lomu was the world’s hero, Zinzan Brooke was mine. He was the number 8 that all would aspire to be. A monster with the skills of a back. He kicked three drop-goals in his career, unprecedented for a forward. I was half his size when I approached him on the back pitch. He grabbed my notebook, beamed at me and scrawled his name. That was it really; that stuck with me. I’ve set my alarm to South Hemisphere time every Tri-nations since.
One year out from the Rugby World Cup 2015 and the question, ‘Can the All Blacks be beaten?’ is what preoccupies all concerned with the unpredictable bounce of the oval ball.
This is a familiar place to be. Remember the bunch of 2007: Tana Umaga, Jerry Collins and Joe Rokocoko? They were destined to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy based on their imperious form going into that tournament.
I was a confident youth then. I didn’t know doubt. So certain of their passage into the semi-final I accepted an invitation to go to a debs and missed the quarter-final against France in Cardiff. Torn between the social occasion and my love for the greatest sporting team on the planet I chose the debs. There’d be the semi and final to look forward to, I consoled my fanatical self; more Hakas left in RWC 2007. I was an 18 year old boy on the cusp of man-hood; these dress events mattered, or so I thought then.
As I sat in the Leopardstown Pavilion decked out in my penguin suit with my dicky bow cutting off my circulation I ate dinner respectfully while drinking recklessly when in my pocket my phone buzzed. My Nokia 32-something wasn’t the height of sophistication but the message was clear. The All Blacks had been dumped out. Thanks, Dad. The photos of that night will show me smiling, I danced too but inside there was minor turmoil. How? I wondered.
The New Zealand public laid the blame squarely at the feet of Wayne Barnes, like a golfer who looks to his caddy when he miss-hits a wedge from the middle of the fairway. They had their scapegoat. I had to face reality though – French captain Thierry Dusautoir made 38 tackles that night – New Zealand had lost, when it mattered, again. I would cop abuse for my unusual fandom and I knew I’d have to take it in good spirits.
The ‘bottler’ tag hung around the best interim team in the world for four more years. The failures, especially against France, were too regular to explain away. Since ’87 they’d had their excuses – but they didn’t wash with the great washed rugby public. Food poisoning was mooted in ’95 when their team was struck down with illness before the final. But in reality Francois Pienaar’s Invictus Springboks, buoyed by Nelson Mandela and his new Rainbow nation, targeted Lomu and the ball and managed to pull off the most famous of rugby victories. Joost Van Der Westhuizen wore nine that day.
In 1999 Diego Dominici and Phillip Bernat-Salles sparked an incredible French comeback in the semi against an indomitable Lomu and co. as only the French could. I looked on from a 14″ inch tv-set. The All Blacks were as helpless to the outcome as those small figures I still controlled on Jonah Lomu Rugby. I cried that day. But don’t tell anyone. To compound my woes United won a treble that year.
In the 2003 semi-final Carlos Spencer, the mercurial All Black fly-half who thrilled crowds with the most unorthodox of plays, threw a daring pass which was plucked from the sky by Australia’s Sterling Mortlock. He ran the length of the pitch and scored. The Wallabies knocked the All Blacks out. By then Spencer had replaced Zinzan as my favourite player, but his panache came at the dearest price as New Zealand paid for having a brilliant but inconsistent 10.
By 2011 the All Blacks were Rugby World Cup hosts for the second time and I’d grown sick of dress balls. I visited the land of the long white cloud en route to Australia. It was as close as I’ll get to a pilgrimage. Unsurprisingly, they were favourites.
I was attending a ground that I’d watched test rugby on television in for 15 years.
From the city of Auckland wound a World Cup trail through the university, up steps and along bustling streets. House parties and pubs provided base camps where the excitement built as you marched towards the floodlights of Eden Park. Entering the stadium the pitch was immaculately lit but the stands remained black, speckled sporadically with loud, blue beret wearing Frenchmen.
The All Blacks were hosts but the hospitality ceased at the turnstile. Piri Weepu stalked the ranks of his tribe unleashing haka fury with each swipe of his arm and cut of his throat: “Kapa O Pango kia whakawhenau ai i ahau!” perforated the silence on this cold October night as camera flashes captured the sinister pre-match war dance.
That night Richie McCaw received his 100th cap in a convincing group stage win against France. (At Lansdowne Road a decade previously I’d seen a baggy number 7 jersey hit every ruck on his way to a man of the match debut.) In Auckland the week previous Ireland famously beat Australia, I was proud to be in the stands for that too.
The pressure on the All Blacks during that tournament was unprecedented. They had to win. But things started falling apart in the group stages when Dan Carter got a freak groin strain during kicking practice before they played Canada. The national press and the public went into meltdown. The control they’d exerted over the rugby world for the last four years was crumbling in the heat of a World Cup, again. New Zealanders held their breath for the rest of the tournament.
When the final came around they’d made it. Waiting for them were arch enemies France who’d slipped unassumingly into the final. Things had changed drastically since the group stage match. Richie McCaw had a suspected broken foot, Piri Weepu was the place kicker and 3rd choice fly-half Aaron Cruden was at 10. Stephen Donald was called back from a fishing holiday to sit on the bench as cover. Cruden went down with a buckled knee during the game and Donald was in. He kicked the penalty that proved the difference. Somehow they managed to hold on winning 8-7 (Dusautoir “38” got France’s try).
They were the best team in the 2011 tournament but an average French outfit probably deserved to beat them on the night. What matters though is that they’d laid the ghost to rest: World Champions 1987 and 2011. One New Zealand Herald headline read, “All Blacks win Rugby World Cup. Angst is over.” Press and public could breath again.
From my point of view they had finally become world champions in my lifetime and my friends could now rightly berate me for supporting the winners – it had been a 24 year wait.
Three years on and twelve months out from RWC 2015 and New Zealand are as confident as they’ve ever been in the interim. But, come October 2015, in the white heat of the tournament, winners predictions are as futile as guessing with certainty the bounce of the oval ball.
The All Blacks have exhausted their excuses, they’re defending world champions and are eager to win their first World Cup away from Eden Park. Today they face one of their biggest obstacles in South Africa in Ellis Park, Johannesburg. I’ll be at the Sugar Club (4pm k.o.) to watch the game on the big screen before moving on to the local derby between Leinster-v-Munster in the Aviva stadium.
Richie McCaw becomes the most capped All Black ever with 134 caps passing Colin Meads’ previous record. Some achievement for a man with 7 and a target on his back in the modern game – he still hits every ruck, watch him.