Lock Brodie Retallick has returned for the All Blacks in arguably their strongest side for Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Ireland in Tokyo.
Wind back to Auckland last Sunday night, and a whole city was wearing black. Across the country of New Zealand, the attire was the same. But this wasn’t mourning. This was the polar opposite.
Just last February, the small nation to our east stood united in the solidarity of grief after earthquakes destroyed the historic city of Christchurch. Sunday night left them standing in the equally peculiar solidarity of communal joy, in the moments after the All Blacks delivered New Zealand’s first World Cup since 1987.
I’ve been turning the moment over in my mind ever since. To be part of such an atmosphere was extraordinary. To be at the very centre of it, bearing witness to the victory live in the arena of Eden Park, was a privilege.
Where television offers greater proximity, information, and analysis, the live experience of sport has an intensity and immediacy that can never be matched.
You are not a spectator, you are a constituent part of each moment.
The haka, for instance. On screen it can seem half impressive, half ridiculous. Ben Pobjie’s response was a personal favourite: as the semi-final haka commenced, he tweeted along the lines of “And now we’d like to express our natural competitiveness, via the medium of dance.”
But in the concrete amplifier of Eden Park, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.
The anthems had been sung. The crowd was vocal. And then suddenly… a hush.
Piri Weepu, wandering between the lines of All Blacks like an officer-at-arms, issued the first call. It slicked cool and clear across the night, easily audible from our seats in the stands. The team responded, and in the moment after their first shout of affirmation, it seemed the entire stadium was still holding its vibration.
And the French… the French, those magnificent bastards. For weeks we’d been panning them for being craven and dull. But in the face of this, outnumbered ten to one in the stands, they were not going to back down.
In a sweetly Gallic gesture of solidarity, before the haka began, they held hands. (What other rugby team can you imagine doing this?) And they made it look tough as hell.
They spread out into a flying V formation, like they’d been picking up on my Mighty Ducks references in recent columns. They held the formation, arms firmly linked to form one human chain, so that every one of them could see the opposing side.
Then as the haka started, where so many other opponents have stood meekly, the French surged forward, striding with purpose to the halfway line. They eyeballed the All Blacks furiously, and continued drifting the occasional extra step, refusing to be cowed. A couple of the All Blacks were drawn out of formation toward them, unable to resist the challenge. The atmosphere: magnetic.
The move will cost them fifteen grand in the form of an IRB fine, but in creating a moment that will live on in the minds of rugby fans in perpetuity, the money could not have been better spent.
Eden Park was a sea of black, packed to the top of every tier, not a seat to be seen. The French contingent, we found once play began, was still surprisingly vocal and strong.
There were so many plots and subplots at play. Tony Woodcock, the unlikeliest try-scorer on the field, thundering over with all the grace of a drunk mastodon to score five points. Piri Weepu ensuring it was the only score of the half, missing three kicks.
But the low scoring wasn’t all down to error, nor to conservatism. There was simply a ferocity brought to the play by both sides. From the All Blacks, this had been expected. But the French, while overpowered in the scrums, matched them in tackling and defence, and pressed hard with the ball in hand.
There was the attrition of the No. 10s: first Aaron Cruden’s injury, the fairytale of his World Cup call-up for the semis ending a with a busted knee. New Zealand’s third-choice No. 10 off the field, and their fourth option in Stephen Donald called up.
Then Morgan Parra, nearly knocked out for the French. The sliding knee that collected him so unnecessarily and so late could well have attracted attention. Had it been a French tackle, it probably would have.
To half time the atmosphere was fierce. As Donald saw New Zealand finally land a penalty in the second, Eden Park was rolling like a kettle drum, vibrating with sound.
Then, in the quarter hour or so after France scored and converted to make it a one-point difference, the ground slowly grew quiet. The fans grew nervous. Time was growing shorter, and they could suddenly foresee another late French steal. I asked the wide-eyed Kiwi behind me how he was feeling. “I’m shitting myself,” he said plainly.
While the man-of-the-match award would go to French captain Thierry Dusautoir, it looked a clear decision for Aurelien Rougerie from ground level. While ugly footage has since emerged of Rougerie’s foul on Richie McCaw, I’ll stick to that call on gameplay alone.
Simply, Rougerie was immense. Even when his team was under the greatest defensive pressure in the first half, the French centre sliced run after run through New Zealand’s tacklers, flicking through the lines as though Godard were in the editing room and had just discovered jump cuts.
The perfect alliance of size and speed, Rougerie stepped around and away from black shirts with audacity to steal invaluable territory.
It was his scything run, stopped not far short of the line, that gained position for the sole French try of the night, and then his run and pass to Dusautoir that set the skipper up to cross for five points.
To get an idea of Rougerie in action, have a look at this effort from the French league. Sure, Kiwis will hate him, but he’s still bloody good.
As the clock wound down, the French began to assert themselves further. Suddenly they were stealing lineouts. Winning high balls. Charging the lines.
The All Blacks were absolutely desperate in their resistance, refusing to panic and let their prize be taken. Weepu was subbed off, looking disgusted with himself. There was terror on Kiwi faces as France won a penalty, but the kick was pushed wide.
As time ticked down, it seemed that New Zealand’s faith grew. Perhaps the crowd had wavered. It didn’t look like the players had. In the last couple of minutes, the All Blacks kept the ball trapped in a rolling maul, a scrum of sheer determination.
It was emblematic of the path they had taken to the final: powerful, united, inexorable. Possession was retained, and they had won.
There can be little as galling as the presentation for silver. Dusautoir had a lonely walk along the podium to await his team, a sole figure with his stalking stride, apparently oblivious to the massing crowd.
The coveted cup was almost close enough to touch, yet could not have been further away. The ovation for the French from the relieved Kiwi crowd was astounding.
We had witnessed what the casual observer, glancing at the scoreline, would write off as a dour kick-fest riddled with error. In fact it had been one of the most engrossing struggles imaginable. Not everything must end 44-42.
And now, it was New Zealand’s time.
The cup was presented, the heroes of yesteryear welcomed, the songs were sung. All around us were the happy smiling faces of New Zealanders, covered in paint, waving flags.
It was sweet, and it was charming, and it was also not our moment. It started to feel a little bit like watching your friends make out. My friends from the Great Crusade glanced at each other, nodded, and quietly slipped away.
Something felt strange, but it wasn’t until reaching the main gates that it struck me. We were the only ones leaving the stadium.