It has not been a vintage year for this correspondent in terms of Rugbyheads writing. The founders of this site may be wondering, if by now they still care, where this erstwhile writer has disappeared to. The Super 12 has come and gone, the All Blacks have actually succeeded in winning both Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations, victories that most New Zealanders hail as well overdue. Winning back the Bledisloe Cup after the five-year drought at the hands of the Wallabies was a night to remember in Dunedin (a memorable way for this correspondent to return to New Zealand after attending a family wedding in Scotland). The NPC is now underway and Wellington, despite typically shaky moments, have scored a memorable win over Auckland at Eden Park, something in the 1980s and 1990s would have been hailed to the skies. On the other hand, on the night this dispatch was sent, Wellington suffered an ignominious 15-3 wet-weather defeat to North Harbour. Being a Wellington supporter definitely means suffering the highs and the lows.
Yet, where, one might ask, has this correspondent been? Has scarfie life taken its toll? Has study distracted him from the finer things of life, namely devotion to our national game? Even more importantly, does it matter anyway? Rugby and Rugbyheads goes on regardless.
The answer is simple: this correspondent is holding his metaphorical breath for the pinnacle of world rugby: the month-long competition for the William Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia. The 2003 Rugby World Cup will, in weeks, be upon us all. The selections have been made, the critics are having their say: New Zealand is just about to head into arguably the most important sporting event of the year: indeed of the MILLENNIUM thus far! The America's Cup is thankfully well behind us, the Silver Ferns stand tall and proud as worthy champions. Seeing the netballers beat the Australians in the World Cup final in Jamaica was one of the great highlights of 2003. But the All Blacks are still a special breed in our sporting heritage and now their greatest challenge lies before them. It is timely to acknowledge just what this challenge potentially means to us all.
Reflecting on Wellington's high and low performances in the past two weeks seems a good starting point for reflecting on the campaigns our champions have undertaken: for the All Blacks, it is indeed a tale of glory and ignominy.
1987: New Zealand actually wins something
Sixteen years on, it is hard to re-emphasise the significance of the All Blacks win in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. It was an era where the game still had scars from off-the-field controversies, when the profile of the game was still in a trough, where the All Blacks, in late 1986, stood only third or fourth in the world rankings, in the overheard opinion of at least one schoolmate of this writer. Rugby was still New Zealand's major winter sport, but the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when it was unchallenged as the country's national game seemed long gone, along with the society that supported that status. For some, it was good riddance to both.
Yet, as Lindsay Knight remarked in Lochore, (his biography of the great All Black captain and coach) as the New Zealand team boarded their bus on the day of the 1987 final against France, it seemed for the first time in years that the All Blacks represented all New Zealanders. First-five-eighth Grant Fox remarked later that year that the crowds that cheered them off from their hotel that day boosted the squad's morale. God Defend New Zealand was sung with what at least one sports writer called rare enthusiasm. For the first time in what seemed generations the crowd gave full voice to the traditional Black, Black, Black chant and really meant it: during and after the game.
The two previous sporting highlights of the year had mixed results: the memorable America's Cup campaign in Australia with (Sir) Michael Fay and Chris Dickson had gripped the country but had ended at the semi-final stage and culminated in main rival Dennis Connor taking the cup back to the United States. The long-awaited cricket test series with the unofficial world champion West Indies had ended in a 1-1 draw after a great Hadlee-Chatfield bowling effort humbled the visitors in the final test, leading to a five-wicket win for the home side. It was a fine moment, yet the Windies also demolished the New Zealanders in the subsequent one-day series.
So, while we'd had our moments, (including our athletics,sailing and rowing efforts at various Olympic and Commonwealth Games) by early 1987 we didn't seem to be getting a lot of high-profile no. 1 placings. An international tournament win for New Zealand, amidst the ongoing sharemarket boom but concurrent economic stress in the country, (the sharemarket crash occurred four months later) was highly desirable for national morale. If nothing else, it would represent a discernible achievement. Some New Zealanders, though, were not holding their breath.
And, in the end, it wasn't soccer, cricket, yachting or anything else that gave this country that longed-for moment in the sun. It was RUGBY. The once-revered and unchallenged sport that for some had become unfashionable: the game of macho dunderheads, the code of legalised violence and for some, the silent supporter of South Africa's apartheid regime. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these impressions, firmed up during the 1970s and 1980s by changing social structures and political developments, it would be fair to say that it was hard to make headway against them.
It took that month in 1987 to turn much of it around. As the All Blacks won against Italy, Fiji and Argentina (this correspondent was present at that third pool game with his parents, brother and sister), the suspense started to build. Another comprehensive win against Scotland, demolishing Wales in what the Evening Post in Wellington headlined as the BALLYMORE MASSACRE set the All Blacks up for the final. One hiccup for the organisers occurred: Australia was knocked out by France in a thrilling semi-final at Concord Oval in Sydney. On a day that would have disturbing echos for New Zealand 12 years later, the French see-sawed their way to one of the great wins of rugby history. There were those who saw similar things happening at Eden Park the following week. And like the All Blacks 12 years later, once knocked off their perch, the Wallabies went down to Wales in the third-fourth place playoff at Rotorua.
There was some debate about the merits of the Rugby World Cup final of 1987 in view of what had gone before. Some critics, particularly from northern hemisphere countries, murmured about a lack of spectacular play. Instead of a try-fest that some expected, it was three good tries by the All Blacks to the Tricolours one, scored right on full time. Grant Fox was briefly jeered for taking kicks at goal when some people wanted tap kicks and running rugby for the full 80 minutes. In any other test match, this may not have been such a big issue. In the final of a World Cup which had raised rugby's profile to an enormous extent, people had expectations that may have been unrealistic. With all that was at stake, it was surely reasonable for the All Blacks to play for the win. Rugby does involve grind as well as colour. Yet, who can forget David Kirk's and John Kirwan's second-half tries? Eden Park erupted as the All Blacks showed the form they had exhibited throughout the tournament, pulling ahead once and for all and by the final whistle having a 29-9 win to celebrate. Oh, yes, and the first-ever win in a Rugby World Cup.
As David Kirk raised the trophy at the end, then pulled non-playing squad captain Andy Dalton towards him to share the moment, it was a time to cherish for New Zealand sport in general and rugby in particular. After a period of being competitive but generally also-rans in high profile codes, the All Blacks had proven New Zealanders to be all-round winners. Players who were politically suspect in some quarters only a season or two before, were now national heroes. The game that only six years before had bitterly divided the country had united it. One newspaper commented at the time that the tournament had allowed New Zealanders to tap their indigenous support for rugby "which we believe had never been lost". The following week, this correspondent saw the now well-known slogan on a blackboard at school: "New Zealand came forth and conquered, Australia only came fourth!"
That is what the 1987 World Cup win meant to this country. With successive wins for the All Blacks in the World and Bledisloe Cups, the New Zealand netball team (yet to be called the Silver Ferns) in their World Cup win the same year, the Admiral's Cup win in yachting further on, the country's sporting morale was uplifted and perhaps the nation's morale was, too. The late 1980s and early 1990s were not always happy times for many New Zealanders:the general success of the All Blacks between 1987 and 1991 did, one feels, make a difference. Perhaps only the All Blacks successful crusade to beat the touring 1956 Springboks was comparable in a different age: to reinforce that in a harsh and competitive world, this country does have something distinctive to offer, which can better anything else the world can offer.
Such analogies can jar on some sensibilities: to place such emphasis on a sport can seem hyperbolic and backward, even dismissive of achievements in other fields such as education, science and technology. But New Zealanders' support of rugby is not a negative when seen in its proper context: the honourable pursuit of achievement in a sport that has given this country some of its greatest moments. Rugbyheads is an outcome of that conviction and sentiment.
1991: When we could barely win anything
That psychological factor is also why, for this correspondent and for so many others in this country, the semi-final loss to the Wallabies in 1991 was a physical hammer-blow. It was particularly hard when the Silver Ferns (narrowly) and the Kiwis had been unable to beat our Trans-Tasman neighbours when it counted and the cricketers (yet to be called the Black Caps) later faltered out of their World Cup after a courageous effort. Good but also-rans. One recalls a news item that New Zealand's fly-fishing team had won their World Tournament that year. The ironic undertone of the report echoes to this day. In a year in which the economy was in a near-depressed state along it seemed, with national morale, the All Blacks at the World Cup had been seen as one possible redeeming feature. We couldn't win that either.
1995: So near and yet so far
It is also why, despite the disappointment we all felt at the time about the result and allegations of food-poisoning, this correspondent could not quite fully begrudge South Africa's win in the 1995 World Cup, when seeing what that result meant emotionally for that country at a time they were trying to unite themselves after years of division. It was not a sentiment this correspondent carried lightly and not one he is likely to repeat again. The win in the America's Cup the same year had much the same impact over here, it must be said. What the reaction would have been if we had won the Rugby World Cup that year as well will remain unknown but the scenes would surely have been similar. But at least one country was uplifted by rugby that year, which is something to be thankful for.
1999: Eve-of-Millennium Nightmare
It is also why the day of the shock defeat to France in the 1999 semi-final was called "Black Monday". Why New Zealanders were rightly or wrongly annoyed to the point of savagery towards John Hart, who for years had been touted as the elixer for New Zealand rugby success. At the ultimate challenge, to regain the crown Hart, as a selector, had helped to gain in 1987, the All Blacks fell short. Even worse, the formula from 1987 was reversed with Australia conquering and New Zealand only "coming fourth". It was definitely time to move on, as all parties quickly realised, to their credit.
So, as the All Blacks prepare for their fifth World Cup campaign, they know that the public interest in their crusade is based on more than casual support. The historical success of the All Blacks found concrete expression in 1987: like England's World Cup soccer team in 1966, it is a yardstick by which all subsequent teams are measured.
Success in 2003, as with the Silver Ferns, would mean the exorcism of many All Black ghosts accumulated over the past 16 years. At least New Zealand rugby will always have the 1987 win to look back on. But the challenge for the team now is to be equal to that team's determination for success and the willingness to do what the 1987 All Blacks and few others have achieved: giving both their sport and their country renewed purpose and direction.