New Zealand’s Long, All Black Night of the Soul

What New Zealand lacked for in scale and size it would make up for in unmatchable levels of public engagement—what the organizers had promised as “a stadium of four million people.”
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Photo by jcchou, shared under a Creative Commons license via Flickr.

9:45 PM, 23 October 2011. Auckland, New Zealand. It’s half-time in the final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. All around the country, people are wondering the same thing: If New Zealand stages a highly successful World Cup and the All Blacks lose in the final, what the hell are we going to do?

After the final whistle, the question will come to seem overwrought, even a little embarrassing. But that this worry pervaded was not exactly surprising. Although the game of rugby union (simply known as rugby in New Zealand) has been gaining ground in recent years in countries traditionally dominated by others, only a few small island nations regard it as their national sport. Of those, New Zealand could fairly claim to be both the most passionate and the most unhealthily fixated. The prospect of failing yet again, and on home ground, was unthinkable.

A local church changed their usual message-board homily to the following during the course of the World Cup:

‘Rugby is not a religion
go the All Blacks!’

They were right, of course. New Zealand society is quite secular, and rugby is bigger than any religion here. 

***

As far as anyone can tell, the game of rugby union came to New Zealand in 1870, 30 years after the British declared sovereignty over the islands. Since then the game has become a core part of the nation’s identity, played by schoolboys and working women. Take, for one example, the town of Southbridge, home to Daniel Carter, widely seen as the best playmaker in the world today. Southbridge has a population of less than 800 and nine rugby teams.

The All Blacks—as the national side is known for their all-black kits—have developed a playing style which combines strength, reckless courage, and a kind of flair born out of necessity. They have a formidable record and a fearsome reputation. They have held the top ranking in the world longer than all other national teams combined. Their dominance of the international game has been total. Except.

*** 

Except, of course, for their failure to turn that dominance into consistent success at the World Cup. New Zealand won the inaugural tournament as hosts in 1987. Ever since, they have been failing in ever more spectacular ways to recapture the trophy. Each failure brings a fresh round of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, and the sight of grown men walking around empty-eyed with tear tracks on their faces. Equally, each disaster becomes the subject of much mirth and mockery for fans of the other teams, especially chief rivals Australia.

To those familiar with the English national football team, this may sound hauntingly familiar. The psychological effect upon the nation is certainly much the same, although it is amplified in this case by the fact that the All Blacks enter every tournament as one of the favourites—as opposed to the English football side, whose fans merely perceive themselves as favourites. Expectations are all the more suffocating when they’re legitimate.

New Zealand applied to host the 2011 edition of RWC, knowing that the nation was going to have to take a financial hit to do so, but eager to have another shot at it. The economic realities of a nation of four million people meant that most Kiwis saw it as their last chance. As 2011 rolled around, alongside the usual host-nation angst about stadiums being ready on time and accommodation for visitors, excitement and anxiety about the possibility of finally recapturing the trophy loomed ever larger.

Former All Black Grant Fox captured the national mood when he spoke of our World Cup complex as not so much a monkey on our backs but ‘a bloody great gorilla’. At the same time, he asserted that New Zealand’s particularly trying year—two devastating earthquakes, the Pike River mining disaster, environmental catastrophe in the form of the Rena oil spill and continuous economic woes—had put the prospect of defeat into perspective.

On the other hand, finally getting that bloody gorilla off our backs might be just about the only thing that could cheer the country up.

***

Many fans and journalists arrived in New Zealand at the start of the World Cup in September unsure of what to expect. There had been fears—almost expectations—of empty stadiums, unsold tickets, overpriced hotels, all the hallmarks of a country not suited to hosting large-scale international sporting events. Those fears were not unreasonable, based on all the black-letter statistics anyone could find on New Zealand, a small island nation, with its population scattered across the country in small towns and cities. However, those who worried about an indifferently mounted tournament had overlooked a statistic not in any guidebook.

What New Zealand lacked for in scale and size it would make up for in unmatchable levels of public engagement—what the organizers had promised as “a stadium of four million people.”

After spending a year living abroad, returning to a country gearing up for the RWC was a welcome reminder of both the foibles and the charm of my country. The demographic differences between the 1987 World Cup and that of 2011 were immediately obvious. I have never seen as many flags on cars, in shops and hanging in the windows of residential homes as I did during the tournament. Not just the official and unofficial national flags of New Zealand, but the flags of almost every other participating nation, and even some non-participating ones. The sight of a New Zealand flag alongside a Tongan, Fijian, South African, Welsh or even Chinese banner (the latter did not qualify for the tournament) was almost as common as that of theblack flag by itself. A day after the All Blacks played France at a sold out Eden Park (capacity 60,000), Samoa played Fiji at the same venue. Unsurprisingly, given that the city of Auckland has the largest Polynesian population in the world, the latter game was also sold out. The free-to-air local Chinese TV channel was filled with rugby-related programming, teaching the game to a large and growing immigrant population, most of whom had never encountered it before, but were just as swept up in the drama as everyone else.

Pre-tournament concerns that Kiwis would be too busy caring about the All Blacks to engage with any of the other teams proved to be totally unfounded. By most accounts, visitors were made to feel welcome, and even the smallest of minnow teams playing in provincial towns attracted interest and popular support. All this is not particularly surprising. Kiwis are inclined towards hospitality, because we recognize that it’s an effort for most people to make it to our isolated corner of the globe; we might as well treat them well. Our youthful insecurity has also bred a barely-concealed desire for validation. 

Much of the power of the All Blacks as national icons depends on their winning record. At the same time, their conspicuous failures feed into our insecurity like nothing else. 

***

The nationalized anxiety reached new levels in a difficult quarter-final against Argentina, as Los Pumaswere dispatched with far greater difficulty than fans had initially anticipated. Some of the anxiety transformed into euphoria following a brilliant victory over deadly rivals Australia in the semi-final. In the week leading up to the final, the atmosphere was fraught with great expectations. Our opponents, France, had been the architects of a traumatic All Black defeat at the quarter-final stage during the last tournament. But the All Blacks had beaten France soundly in the group stages of this World Cup. The French team, by then in open revolt against their coach (this may sound familiar to fans of the French football team) was hardly going to be a match for an All Black side on a high after stuffing Australia.

We might have known, though, that if it was to be done, it was going to be done the hard way. Not with beautiful rugby and a high-scoring victory but with the sport’s equivalent of siege warfare, unable to muster their usual flowing attacking moves in the face of tenacious French defending, and while down to our fourth-choice playmaker due to a series of escalating injury problems. Not with practiced ease but with a performance filled with anxiety, as if the players did have bloody great gorillas on their backs.

At half-time, the score was 5–0 New Zealand, far too small a lead for comfort. In the second half, the score went from 5–0 to 8–0 to 8–7. The All Blacks hung grimly on against waves of determined French attack. The prospect of defeat loomed ever larger for the victory was groaning into reach. When the final whistle went with the score set at 8-7, the predominant feeling around the country was relief. If they could not stand the thought of losing, then neither, it turned out, could their team. Euphoria took longer to take hold. It had been far, far too close.


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