The Roar
The Roar

Part one

Around 12.50 pm on 22 February 2011, the biggest earthquake ever recorded in a central business area anywhere on the globe, at a shallow depth of only four kilometres, devastated the charming, rugby-mad city of Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand.

For 24 seconds the earthquake rumbled “like thunder coming from hundreds of kilometres away.” Fifty cars in a car park jumped, “all hopping wildly” from the force of the energy erupting from the ground. Terrified citizens saw in a “slow-motion blur” the walls of the iconic Cathedral sheer away as if they were sliced by a giant carving knife. This was the second major earthquake to hit Christchurch in six months.

Buildings damaged in the first earthquake but still standing back in September were now flattened in a few seconds. Aftershocks forced terrified workers to hide under their desks or hold on to the shaking walls as if the swaying edifices were pillars of security. The sounds of destruction, the awful roar of the angry earth, piercing sirens, alarms, smashing glass and people screaming and crying, were as terrifying as the falling debris of concrete, bricks, steel and timber.

The mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, was on the fifth floor of the City Council building. He was picked up by the force of the blast and smashed into his desk, breaking three of his ribs. A truck fell into a huge hole in a major arterial road close to the city centre. Rats ran into damaged houses away from the once gently flowing and now turbulent Avon River.

Asphalt started to rise, “spitting open like a bubble that had just popped.” In many parts of the city liquefaction, a smelly ooze, started to cover everything in its path. Swarms of bees launched an invasion. One citizen reported from a funeral chapel that the corpse appeared to shake itself out of the open coffin, so severe and jolting were the aftershocks. There were horror stories by the hundreds. A little child started scrambling across the floor of her house as the earthquake started. She was killed when the large TV set flew off its mountings and smashed into her.

Terrified citizens saw in a “slow-motion blur” the walls of the iconic Cathedral sheer away as if they were sliced by a giant carving knife.

Members of the Crusaders Super Rugby squad had just finished training at the club’s Rugby Park headquarters. Dan Carter, the team’s star flyhalf and an all-time great All Black, was heading for the showers. The earthquake shook the walls and floor of the grandstand so violently he and some of his fellow players were thrown from side to side. They emerged into the sunlight with hands and elbows grazed and bleeding. Later they remembered there had been an eerie silence followed by equally eerie screaming of sirens and alarms. Corey Flynn, a veteran player, was chatting to the baggage man John “Foxy” Miles in an office under the grandstand, and as every part of the building shuddered, groaned, cracked and moved “you just knew something bad was happening.”

Image via Wiki Commons

Image via Wiki Commons

Sonny Bill Williams, the rugby league champion who had converted to rugby union to pursue a dream of winning a Rugby World Cup medal, was in a pool spa in the city doing some recovery work. His first thought was that the whole building was going to collapse. “Then I looked back along the pool and it was just like a wave pool. Some bloke tried to jump out of the spa but just got knocked back and flung around. It was just shaking from side to side,” he recalled later.

The earthquake had acted as a geological trampoline. Usually earthquakes move from side to side as the earth shifts laterally. But this was a vertical earthquake. Without warning the earth dropped about a metre. Then, just as suddenly and dramatically, the earth rebounded two metres upwards. Such was the force of the massive shove upwards, the biggest buildings in the city were propelled into the air by a force, according to the experts, that was twice their own weight.

The final death toll was over 180 women, men and children dead. 1400 buildings were partially demolished. 7857 houses could not be rebuilt because the land was so badly damaged. The All Black champion forward Kieran Read described the flattened, smashed inner city and suburbs as a “war zone.”

The final death toll was over 180 women, men and children dead.

The noted author Tom Keneally has described the Olympic ideals as “establishing tribal power without going to war.” New Zealanders had the same notion in 2011 about running the best ever Rugby World Cup tournament, and winning it. Now a pall created by successive unexpected disasters threatened to smother the joy of the occasion. There had been a 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch during the night of September 4 in 2010. Now came this more devastating one in February 2011, three months later. Earlier in the month, 29 men were killed in a series of underground explosions at the Pike River mine, on the West Coast.

Some Maori shamans were predicting further calamities. Would these calamities now destroy the presentation of the Rugby World Cup tournament in New Zealand?


Dan Carter had to move out of his damaged house. His fiancée was grieving from the death of a friend. The day after the earthquake, he helped his neighbours with the cleaning up operations. One of his tasks was to deliver water to those who needed it.

“As All Blacks, we are kind of held on a pedestal here in a nation of rugby fanatics,” he told reporters later.

“Just because you’re an All Black doesn’t mean you’re not going to get your hands dirty to help out when needed.”

Richie McCaw, the Crusaders and All Blacks captain, also shovelled away rubbish and mud with his neighbours. His uncle’s house had been “mashed.” His parents’ house was damaged. His attitude was that the community had to work together to return the city to a semblance of what it was before, as soon as possible.

“There’s a new normal now. There are holes in the streets where buildings used to be… You’ve got to look at it positively and say we have a chance to make things better… That’s the attitude we are going to take into the World Cup.”

Andy Ellis, the ebullient Crusaders and later the All Blacks halfback who kicked the ball into touch to end the World Cup final, was thinking of a schoolmate still trapped under one of the down town buildings when his team had its first training run after the earthquake.

On 23 February 2011, at 5.26 pm (Australian time), one day after the earthquake, an email appeared on my laptop screen and on thousands of screens around the rugby world. It was headed:

RNZ 2011 Statement On Christchurch Earthquake.
Rugby New Zealand 2011 (RNZ 2011) CEO Martin Snedden today expressed sympathy to the people of Christchurch as the city deals with the aftermath of yesterday’s devastating earthquake… It is too early to talk in any detail about implications for the Tournament in Christchurch and any assessment by us must wait while the rescue efforts take priority… There has been speculation that this tragedy puts the entire event in jeopardy or that matches will be relocated to Australia. That is not the case. Rest assured, RWC 2011 will proceed and all matches will take place in New Zealand.

The World Cup tournament organisers, Snedden later told me, had actually planned for natural disasters that might destroy hotels and venues like AMI Stadium at Christchurch. The challenge now was a reality. It was not theoretical.

There has been speculation that this tragedy puts the entire event in jeopardy or that matches will be relocated to Australia.

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second largest city. It was intended to be a major hub for the World Cup tourists in the South Island. Gullivers Sport Travel had advertised 13 different tours throughout New Zealand. Four out of the five tours on the top of their list embraced stays in Christchurch.

As I read Martin Snedden’s email to the world’s rugby media, an avalanche of questions came to my mind.

Would the tourists come to new venues? Could a new schedule of matches be created in time? What would happen to the new schedules if there were further disasters? What about the after-shocks and their effect on the minds of potential tourists? Would the New Zealand public be traumatised by the continuing after-shocks?

And could those All Blacks who had lived through the horrors of the earthquake be able to concentrate on the task of winning the RWC tournament?

Image via Wiki Commons

A sinkhole in Christchurch. Image via Wiki Commons

Two weeks before the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament was scheduled to start and six months after the Great Christchurch Earthquake, I chatted with Martin Snedden in the executive suite of the Hilton Hotel on George Street, in the heart of Sydney’s CBD district.

Snedden is a lawyer and a notable member of an Auckland family that has dominated the law and sports in New Zealand’s biggest city. He has an affable manner that hides a steely determination to make the best of any situation. He had been a useful bowler who clean-bowled Vivian Richards in a Test match. It was Snedden, too, who took a remarkable catch to “dismiss” Greg Chappell in the infamous “Under-Arm” ODI at Melbourne, only to find that the umpire ruled Chappell not out on the grounds he didn’t see the catch taken. He is a man who rises to the challenges of an occasion.

Snedden told me that 100,000 match tickets had been sold in Australia. He expected 30,000 Australians to cross “the ditch.” Tickets were selling fast. Already $240 million worth of tickets had been sold. The sale exceeded the entire sale in Australia for the 2003 edition. He gave me an example of the enthusiasm for the tournament by revealing that 17,000 tickets had been sold already for the Ireland – USA match at New Plymouth.

New Zealand’s relative small size, he said, had been tweaked to work as an advantage. No part of New Zealand is more than 60 kms from the sea. And the distance between Wellington and Auckland is about 600 kms, easily travelled in a day by car or by plane in an hour or so. The tournament schedule had arranged for matches to be played throughout the week. This enabled fervent supporters to see many more pool matches than was possible at previous World Cup tournaments.

While Martin Snedden was in Sydney talking up the tournament to Australians, the various teams were already arriving from all over the world.

Fiji had already been greeted enthusiastically at Auckland Airport. France and England arrived a day later. England came in at 5am and were welcomed with a haka followed by rousing choruses of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, their team song. France were taken to a school at Takapuna where they were welcomed with a haka. Team Italy were greeted as heroes by a crowd of 500 people at Nelson. Japan arrived around the same time with their coach, the All Black legend John Kirwan, the scorer of a fabulous try against Italy in the first ever RWC match in 1987 at Eden Park. Kirwan told the crowd it was good to be “home.” In Wellington there were signs of “Hier kon die manne” (Here come the men) as hundreds turned out to greet the Springboks when the team strolled around the waterfront.

Many New Zealanders, especially those from Christchurch, sent messages of guarded support to Robbie Deans, the most successful coach of the Crusaders, when the Wallabies arrived in Auckland. “I have got a far bit of time for Robbie,” the former All Blacks and Canterbury coach and representative player Alex “Grizz” Wylie told reporters, “and I suppose if the All Blacks don’t win the World Cup, it would be quite nice if he did.”

A massive event like a Rugby World Cup tournament creates a parallel world in the country where it is being played. Life in the real world is put on hold while the avatars play out their fantasies for all of us. I got a sense of this, as if I was a character in Woody Allen’s “Cairo Rose,” when I arrived at Auckland Airport just days before the opening match of the tournament.

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans (right) gives instruction during the Australian team training session at Rugby League Park in Wellington, New Zealand, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. The team are in preparation for their IRB Rugby World Cup Pool C match against the USA

There was a buzz in the terminal. Everywhere you looked people were wearing the colours of their team, with black predominating. My friend Niels, who had come to pick up my wife Judy and I, had trouble finding a parking spot. He parked illegally. We rushed out of the airport to find a parking officer standing ominously beside the car. The officer slowly consulted his note-book, still staring at the car. “You can’t give us a ticket,” I pleaded with him. “You shouldn’t be here,” he replied. Now the biro was being poised. “I’m a journalist from Australia. I’m coming to the World Cup to report it for a big newspaper there. You wouldn’t want Australian readers, some of whom might be thinking of coming here, to be put out by officialdom,” I begged.

While I was making my plea, we stacked our cases in the car and jumped into our seats. The officer remained unconvinced. But then with a startled look which almost instantly turned into a terrified gaze he turned away from us. At the same time we heard a cacophony of yells, cries, chants and what seemed like endless incantations of tooting car horns. The officer fled away towards the noise. We drove away slowly, inching forward at snail pace through a massive convoy of trucks and cars piled high with raucous Tongans making a hellish din and waving red flags. The entire road area around the Auckland Airport was blocked. I saw our officer in the midst of all this confusion looking like a helpless barrier trying to stop a flooding sea of red. Chants of “Tonga! Tonga! Tonga!” could be heard throughout and around the airport.

The next morning, The NZ Herald reported that the arrival of the Tongans and the overwhelming welcome they had received from the local Tongan community had set the tournament alight. TONGAN SPIRIT BLOWS REST OUT OF WATER, a headline screamed.

Photo via Shafraz Nasser, Flickr

Photo via Shafraz Nasser, Flickr

So there I was walking from New Lynn, a lovely village set on a hill overlooking Eden Park. The ground glowed like an ocean liner in the darkening skyline. I was on my way to Eden Park to watch and report on the opening match of Rugby World Cup of 2011.

It took about 20 minutes of fast walking to get there. The authorities had groomed Auckland so that all roads led, literally, to Eden Park. On every connecting road there were feet painted in green. You followed the Green Feet Road towards the ground. Officials with lighted Star Wars wands waved the thickening crowds through to the various entrances. In the fading light, you could see a bright moon hanging in the sky. It was going to be a perfect, still and cool night for rugby.

Many people waved flags. Many others, including men of a certain age, had their faces painted with black ferns on both their cheeks. I saw a sign saying: “Smile: Jesus Loves You.” An All Blacks supporter lining up behind me to get into the ground said to a Tongan supporter: “Make sure you leave Dan Carter alone.” The Tongan replied good-naturedly: “We’re going to save him up for the final, and then smash him!” Over at one of the entrances, John Eales was doing a stand-up piece to camera. “There are 48 days to go before we know which team will win the Cup,” he intoned.

The authorities had groomed Auckland so that all roads led, literally, to Eden Park.

I saw a group of pleasant-faced and jovial Auckland good old girls, all dressed in black. One of them, who seemed vaguely familiar, approached me. “Are you Spiro Zavos?” she asked. I nodded. “Do you remember me? I’m Helen.” Memories of a golden summer and playing cricket against England and a first romance came flooding back. “Yes,” I told her, “we went out together in Wellington all those years ago.” We hugged, chatted for a few minutes and then moved on.

My normal practice before a big match is to arrive early and go into the media box to chat and gossip with the other rugby writers and the officials who often have crumbs of chatter they want to drop for the chooks of the media to devour. Not this time, though. Fairfax Media, the owners of my newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald, had failed to reach agreement with the World Cup authorities on the rights regarding the use of videos taken at the ground.

The upshot of the confrontation was that Fairfax Media instructed all of its journalists, which included me, that we could not under any circumstances use any facilities at the ground that were provided for accredited journalists. I found myself cutting short a discussion with a friend who worked for the IRB. I feared I might be breaking the Fairfax Media instructions. I walked past the media tribunal where I could see all my journalist mates and rivals watching on the big screens, eating pies, working at their laptops and chatting away in groups.

My seat for the match was behind the goal-posts and at the back of the steep temporary stand that seemed to me to be a Heath Robinson construction of iron pipes and wooden planks.

The opening ceremony was a splendid thing. Jonah Lomu, a New Zealander with Tongan ancestry and the player who had changed the way rugby is played, was the iconic figure of the show. The lights went down. Hundreds of mobile phones flicked and swayed making points of light that created a sort of fairyland effect. The show revealed a potted history of New Zealand which segued into a spectacular Maori challenge. The tournament was officially opened. Bernard Lapasset, the French chairman of the IRB, brought out a huge roar from the crowd with his welcome in Maori. Fireworks exploded.

I wrote in my note-book: “The match itself may well be an anti-climax after this terrific build-up.”

In fact, it was a tough match for the All Blacks, despite the comfortable score line of New Zealand 41– Tonga 10. Tonga gave the All Blacks an awkward and disruptive contest. Most of the Tongan players now play professionally in Europe. They brought the northern hemisphere tactics of spoiling, barging and the killing of rucks and mauls to slow down the game into their play. This negativity was balanced (if that is the correct verb) with the positivity of some old-fashioned Polynesian smashing hits. Sonny Bill Williams was twice stopped near the try line when it looked likely he was going to score a try. The All Blacks were measured in their play. They walked slowly to the lineouts and drove from them repeatedly when they won the ball. Still, they scored six tries in the match, four in the first half and only two in the second half. All the star players made it through to the next match, although Daniel Carter walked off awkwardly with a sore back.

The match itself may be an anti-climax after this terrific build-up.

The most curious aspect of the match was the refereeing by the Irish referee George Clancy. He penalised the All Blacks 12–7 which seemed to me to be a bizarre count given the fact that they were totally dominant in the set pieces and in the rucks and mauls. Towards the end of the match the ground resounded to the unusual sound of the referee being booed.

The pool round matches were played at 12 different stadiums, from Whangarei in the top of the North Island right and down to Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island. The Wallabies played their first two matches in the Auckland area, Italy at the North Harbour stadium and Ireland at Eden Park. So I made Auckland my headquarters for the tournament and flew out to several other matches, including the quarter-finals in Wellington before returning to Auckland for the semi-finals and the final.

Two weeks into the tournament, I visited the chief rugby writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden, in his suite in the Quest Apartments on Queen Street in down town Auckland. A veteran of World Cup tournaments since 1991, Greg told me he was covering the tournament by staying in his apartment and watching The Rugby Channel. He continually scrolled 30 or so online blogs for stories and breaking news. All the media conferences and matches were broadcast on The Rugby Channel. The tournament came to him. The ARU helped matters, too, by informally briefing the prohibited Australian journalists.

It was Growden who broke the first real story of the tournament with the hilarious revelation that two New Zealand cabinet ministers in the ARU box for the Australia–Italy match had disgraced themselves with Aussie-bashing behaviour that amazed and dismayed their hosts.

I congratulated Greg on his scoop. “I can order pizzas whenever I want them and The Rugby Channel gives me all the games and media conferences,” he told me. Pointing to his iPhone he continued, “I can scroll all the blogs and online stuff on this. I think I’ve discovered the best way to cover World Cup tournaments from now on.”

I think I’ve discovered the best way to cover World Cup tournaments from now on.”

The Wallabies, coming off a victory at Brisbane against the All Blacks to win the Tri Nations tournament, had been extremely impressive in the second half against Italy. I suggested in a column for the SMH that these 40 minutes, along with the first 40 minutes of the All Blacks against Tonga, were the most impressive performances in the first round of the tournament so far.

Taranaki is heartland country in the rugby nation of New Zealand. Everywhere you go through the province, you can see paddocks with goalposts up. On Saturday mornings, kids, often without boots, slither and run in the mud and cold. In the afternoons, their older brothers and fathers play for clubs teams with names like Stratford and Eltham. So it was a brilliant idea of the schedulers to place the most interesting match of the pool rounds, the USA versus Russia, in this rugby stronghold.

There was a fine irony about this contest. Russia and the USA are great political powers, but they are rugby minnows. New Zealand is a political minnow, but it is a great rugby power.

And the Taranaki rugby community loved having the Russians and Americans with them. The local paper ran a huge front-page headline on match-day: “A Game LIKE NO OTHER.” Russian and American flags were everywhere. A local coach, who worked in the USA, was quoted as saying: ”This is the USA against Russia. They say the Cold War is over and everyone is getting all kissy-faced, but still a battle is going on, on the rugby field.”

Before the match, the city of New Plymouth buzzed with rumours that Vladimir Putin was coming. Putin fancies himself as a strongman, literally and metaphorically. I had notions of Putin stripping off his shirt and rushing out on to the field if the Russian scrum was under pressure. The Russian scrum, in fact, buckled during the match (along with the lineout) but, alas, no Putin Superman appeared to put it right for his side.

The Americans matched the Putin rumour with one of their own. Hillary Clinton was coming!

Before the match, the city of New Plymouth buzzed with rumours that Vladimir Putin was coming.

In the end the celebrity watchers had to make do with New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov and (to the great delight of the males at the game) Miss Russia 2011, Natalia Gantimurova, who arrived on the arms of the billionaire vodka magnate and Russia’s answer to Donald Trump, Roustan Tariko.

I stood at one end of the field for the match among exuberant young people, some of them who seemed to have drunk a little too much of Mr Tariko’s fine product. There were Reagan lookalikes. A young man looking uncannily like Lenin wandered around. Many of the spectators wore red or blue wigs. Throughout the match there were rolling calls of “Russia, Russia” and the inevitable response “USA, USA.”

When a heavy shower rained down during the second half of the match, I was impressed that everyone stayed watching. They saw hard and sometimes skilful rugby. The USA scored a splendid ensemble try. This was a fine achievement given the difficult conditions. Throughout the game they tried to move the ball around by hand. But they found the Russian defence was determined and brave.

The victory to the USA was their third in 18 World Cup matches. A friend standing with me summed up the match accurately, I thought, when he told me: “The rugby analogy is that this match is more a contest to get a man to the moon rather than the Cuban crisis.”

During the intense Australia – Ireland match at Eden Park, Quade Cooper was captured by a posse of fired-up Irish forwards. They held him up in a maul before smashing him to the ground. A spectator in a couple of rows behind me yelled out: “Kill him! Kill him! Kick him in the head!” I turned around to see who the idiot was. He was a florid faced man, middle-aged and wearing a tracksuit top with the All Blacks emblem on it.

The former Wallaby captain and World Cup-winner Nick Farr-Jones had predicted that Cooper’s crazy-brave antics in previous Tests and on Twitter in antagonising the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was “boofhead” behaviour that could “bite the Wallabies in the arse” during the 2011 RWC tournament. The first bite came on that rainy night. It was clear, at least it was to me sitting at ground level and exposed, rather like the players, to the full blast of the roaring of the crowd and the rain, that the majority of the support at Eden Park was for Ireland.

One of these supporters, a woman of a certain age with a huge green wizard’s hat on, kept up an incessant, noisy chant directed at the boyish-looking, blond-haired Wallaby winger James O’Connor. “Justin, Justin Bieber, look at me, look at MEEE!” she screamed out throughout the match. The New Zealanders in the crowd, too, like the lethal-minded man behind me also urged Ireland on.

You got a sense of the pressure the young Wallabies were under, with all the crowd violently against them, with a fired-up Irish side charging into them.

You got a sense of the pressure the young Wallabies were under, with all the crowd violently against them, with a fired-up Irish side charging into them with total disregard for their bodies, on a slippery field that made skilful play difficult, when towards the end of the match Ireland kicked a towering bomb deep into Australian territory. Just as the ball was booted, a heavy shower started. The Wallaby defender had to contend with a ferocious charge of Irish players, an intimidating bellowing roar from the crowd and rain pelting into his eyes. He muffed the catch.

Earlier, when Ireland kicked for goal there was a relative silence. But when O’Connor kicked for goal for the Wallabies there was so much booing that around me there were “ssshh” calls even from Irish supporters for some silence.


Kurtley Beale after Australia’s loss in the pool match against Ireland. Photo via Ara K, Flickr

Before their important pool match against France, the All Blacks made a pilgrimage to Christchurch. The visit was symbolic and mutually therapeutic. It was the All Blacks’ way of showing their solidarity with a community that had endured disaster with stoicism and high courage. That community, too, was seen by the All Blacks as a model for them to copy when hard times inevitably afflicted them in the tournament.

The All Blacks trained in the drizzling rain at the Linwood Rugby Club, a battlers’ club in a working class area. The venue evoked solidarity. Older men and women were joined by fresh-faced youngsters near the picket fence ringing off the ground. With shrewd eyes, old and young, they appraised the All Blacks as they went through their training sequences. After the run, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, along with other players, signed autographs and chatted. Mick Cleary, the rugby writer for The Daily Telegraph (UK), noted that a “sense of comfort was tangible” for the people of earthquake-shattered Christchurch from the visit.

Then the All Blacks flew back to Auckland and to speculation that it might not be a bad thing for whichever side, New Zealand or France, lost the match. “The world won’t fall in if we lose it,” the All Black assistant coach Steve Hansen conceded to reporters.

However, he stressed that the All Blacks were playing for a win: “If we play well we’ll give ourselves a huge chance of winning.” Winning was important because no team has won a Rugby World Cup if they’d lost a match in the pool rounds.

As part of experiencing the World Cup tournament in the way the locals were, I went to a crowded bar in Howick, an outer suburb of Auckland, to watch on the big screen as Australia thrashed the USA, 67-5.

The newspapers in New Zealand and Australia were running stories about how New Zealanders were being vicious to anyone wearing the Wallabies colours. At the grounds the Wallabies were being booed, especially mercurial flyhalf Quade Cooper, whenever they took shots at goal, made mistakes or even when they made great plays. I received angry emails from former Wallabies who were following their team. They expressed their disgust at the antagonism being shown to Wallaby supporters by New Zealanders everywhere they went. I wanted to see for myself if some of this was true.

We sat near the door close to the big screen to hear whatever we could from the commentators. From time to time groups of cougars, dressed in black, marched into the bar. They took no notice of the old codger watching the big screen. As they made their way towards the good old boys at the bar they had the purposeful look in their eyes of prospectors digging for gold.

I couldn’t hear any booing against the Wallabies. But the match was played in civilised Wellington rather than hip-hop Auckland, a city that shares many similarities with Sydney. There were desultory cheers from the watchers in the pub when the USA scored their first and only try when the match was in its early and most interesting stage. But there was little interest in the pub for the rest of the match when the Wallaby backs started to get their act together and put on a spectacular series of long-range tries.

At the airport in New Plymouth after the memorable USA – Russia match, I spotted Greg Martin, the former Wallaby and now an ebullient commentator, putting his bags through the security system. “Enjoying the tournament?” I called out to him. “Mate, it’s been brilliant,” he replied, with a massive grin of delight. “I’ve caught up with old rugby mates, we’ve been treated just brilliantly everywhere. The tournament’s been great.”

Going into the last round of pool matches, this was the feeling of just about everyone in New Zealand, except for a number of disgruntled Wallaby supporters who claimed they were being openly abused by the locals for wearing their gold colours. Aside from this, The Stadium Of Four Million People had become a rugby universe. Streets in some of the smaller towns divided into supporting one of the two teams playing there. Enthusiasm was high. Crowds were large and noisy at the games. The transport systems, after a massive failure on the opening night of the tournament, worked as the planning intended. The All Blacks had thrashed France, their hoodoo team.

Dan Carter was back to his splendid best. His display of masterly play-making in setting up a rampant series of All Blacks attacks evoked memories of his sensational performance in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2005.

So Carter was on fire. The All Blacks were playing like World Cup tournament winners. What could possibly go wrong?

Daniel Carter attempting a goal

On a Saturday afternoon while filling in time before the Wallabies played Russia, I was scrolling through my emails. A message from the NZRU came up on my screen. Richie McCaw, the message ran, was pulling out of the All Blacks last pool round match. There was a niggling pain in his foot which had had a screw put in it some months ago. Dan Carter was to captain the All Blacks.

“Graham Henry is pulling the same stunt he did against Japan,” I emailed a friend. “He has appeased the critics of the rotation policy by naming a virtual first XV, and then has withdrawn McCaw.”

Then a second short media release from the NZRU came up on my laptop screen. Dan Carter was being withdrawn from the match against Canada.

The NZRU statement on McCaw was quite long and detailed. It pointed out that the All Blacks captain could have played if this was absolutely necessary. But he was being cautious with the quarter-final coming up. The statement on Carter, though, had no explanatory text as in the McCaw media release. It merely stated that Carter was not going to play against Canada. The NZRU would make a fuller statement the next day, Sunday. And that was that.

But on the online media and television the awful news was out.

There were photos and television pictures of Carter practicing a kick at goal and then as he was in his kicking stride he slowly collapsed. He was like one of those buildings in the Christchurch earthquake, as he slowly crumbled to the ground. He lay there grimacing in pain, a broken rubble of flesh and bones. You didn’t need a media conference to tell you that the pictures of Carter being assisted from the training field meant that he was out of the tournament.

Later we found out that he had pulled the adductor longus tendon in his groin right off the bone. He could not put any pressure on his leg. He could not stand up. Running and kicking goals were out of the question for months.

Richie McCaw had been standing on the far side of the training field. He watched as Carter, as captain for the next match, ran the drills and then finished off the session with a couple of kicks at goal. He was not aware of what had happened until he went back into the dressing rooms.

“DC’s wrecked,” he was told. He went over to Carter and put his hand on the stricken player’s shoulder. “You poor bugger,” he told him.

Like one of those buildings in the Christchurch earthquake, Carter slowly crumbled to the ground. He lay there grimacing in pain, a broken rubble of flesh and bones.

Around 10am the next day, Sunday, a grimmer than usual Graham Henry made the announcement that Dan Carter was out of the tournament. ‘Oh my God’, I thought as I listened to the grim news, ‘the All Blacks are stuffed!’

You could sense from the intense media coverage that a palpable sorrow mixed with fear had descended over New Zealand like a long black shroud. In my experience of covering every Rugby World Cup tournament since its start in 1987, this was the single most dramatic off-the-field event experienced by any team or any nation of supporters.

It was, metaphorically at least, New Zealand’s second great earthquake of the year.

And here we come to Graham Henry’s greatest moments as the coach of the All Blacks. “Expect the unexpected” had been the mantra of the coaching staff throughout the preparations for the tournament.

Henry got the players together as Carter was being taken away for X-rays. “We need to be strong and confront adversity,” he told them. “Well, we’ve lost Dan. It’s a hell of a blow, but we’ve just got to get on with doing the business.”

Then at dinner that night Henry and Richie McCaw worked out the next week’s plan. They decided they had to be positive around the team and refuse to accept or intimate that they and the All Blacks would be thrown off course. The absence of Carter was not going to be used as an excuse for not winning the RWC 2011 tournament. The players had always been told to expect the unexpected, and now it had happened. They had to make it happen themselves.

They were the masters of their fate. Fate was not to be their master.

Journalists are prophets of the past. Reporting is about, or should be about, what happens. So the journalists, along with the New Zealand rugby community, had to see if the on-the-field performance of the All Blacks against Canada matched the confidence shown in the fragile-looking Colin Slade, Dan Carter’s successor in the critical number 10 position.

Canada scored first from a penalty. It was the first time in the 2011 tournament the All Blacks had been behind on the scoreboard. Was this an omen? Then the All Blacks went on the rampage with a series of brilliant tries. Several of these tries were created by Slade. He converted his first conversion attempt from the sideline and kicked a penalty. What omen? Then he missed four other conversion in a row. Omen time again, perhaps? Slade was moved to the wing. Piri Weepu came on at number 10, kicked all four of his conversion attempts, and played well. Slade the picked up a minor injury and was subbed by Aaron Cruden, an even more inexperienced and smaller player.

It was the first time in the 2011 tournament the All Blacks had been behind on the scoreboard. Was this an omen?

These details were reported as if the journalists believed that the All Blacks had smoothed over some of the problems involved with life without Dan Carter.

“In a perverse kind of way it could be the kick in the backside the All Blacks need,” the doyen New Zealand Herald rugby writer Wynne Gray proclaimed. The TAB changed its odds slightly on the All Blacks winning the World Cup, letting them slide from $1.50 to $1.60.

But could Colin Slade really become the new Dan Carter?

The rugby stadium in Wellington is a short walk from any part of the downtown area. It was a perfect winter’s day for the Australia versus South Africa quarter-final match. There was not a cloud in the sky, only a light wind (a miracle for windy Wellington) and the cold was as sharp as a carving knife. I saw groups of supporters, in their colours, walking along the huge promenade leading to the stadium’s gate. A volunteer yelled out to the supporters streaming into the stadium: “There’s a prediction for the Boks by 12!” Great roars of approval came from Springboks supporters. “Come on Aussies, put in your prediction,” the volunteer suggested.

Photo via Wiki Commons

Photo via Wiki Commons

I watched the game from a seat behind the goal-posts. This meant that play in the first half, when the Wallabies were attacking the Springboks, was a long way away. I often had to look at the big screen to see what happened. In the second half, though, I was in a great position to see how the Springboks bombed their efforts to score a winning try.

Curiously enough, the early passages of the game seemed to be played in slow motion. And this slow play kept the Springboks in the game. When the Wallabies did open up, they split the Springboks easily. After establishing an 8-0 lead, the Wallabies started to kick the ball back to the Springboks. You can’t score points when the other team has the ball, so why kick it to them? This was dumb play by the Wallabies. It was 27 minutes before the Springboks had their first kickable penalty, which Morne Steyn duly converted. Both sides kept dropping the ball. The bitter cold was making handling the dry ball quite difficult.

In the second half, though, I was in a great position to see how the Springboks bombed their efforts to score a winning try.

At half-time I heard an Australian supporter call out to his mate: “We’re kicking too much.” Quite right, I thought.

With about 30 minutes left in the game, Bismarck du Plessis, the warrior hooker, and arguably the best South Africa has produced, trotted onto the field. The Springboks won their first scrum penalty as the Wallaby scrum crumpled like a car running into a brick wall. Then du Plessis charged down a drop out and centre Jean de Villiers, after a series of attacks, let the Wallabies off the hook by passing forward as the Springboks went across for what should have been a try.

There was enormous controversy about the pass after the match. I had an excellent angle to view it. The pass went out of de Villiers hands in a forward angle and was correctly ruled as such.

The energised Springboks kicked a penalty and a dropped goal. They had now taken an unlikely lead, 9–8.

The Springboks supporters around me and throughout the stadium who had sat mute while their team was struggling suddenly came to life. They roared their heads off. And just as suddenly the Springboks forwards seemed to be charged with a shot of adrenalin. They ran like schoolboys from lineout to lineout and from ruck to ruck. The game looked as if it had raced away from the Wallabies.

Quade Cooper, who played poorly for the Wallabies while being booed every time he touched the ball, bravely ran back the kicks into the big Springboks tacklers. The Wallabies surged into action. They forced a lineout. Radike Samo was slammed to the ground while making a lineout catch. Penalty to the Wallabies!

James O’Connor, about 35m out and on an angle, was confronting the “most important kick of his life.”

People who do not understand the zen of rugby frequently complain about the technical nature of the game and the number of penalties that flow from this. The point they miss is that like basketball, another game that has numerous free throws for infringements, the possibility of a conceding a penalty in a close match gives every play a special significance. This was one of those occasions. The Wallabies were on attack. It was their throw to the lineout. From the lineout the Wallabies had the possibility of setting up a try or a drop goal. The Springboks had to prevent this. They decided to upset the catch from the lineout. They did this illegally by attacking Samo in the air. Penalty!

I wrote in my notebook that James O’Connor, about 35m out and on an angle, was confronting the “most important kick of his life.” You knew that if the kick went over, the Wallabies would probably win. If he missed, the Wallabies would lose.

The kick was as straight and as true as an arrow shot from a longbow.

Then came those agonising final minutes for the players and supporters as the Wallabies protecting their 11–9 lead made tackle after tackle, not missing one. They often ganged up on a Springboks runner and dumped him back into the turf. The Springboks were kept from getting within range of a field goal attempt. The experience was excruciating. It was like having your teeth and your toe nails being extracted at the same time. As the Wallabies knocked over runner after runner a Springboks supporter behind me called out in exasperation: “The Wallabies are putting on their greatest defensive effort ever.”

Now came the final scrum. Would the power of Bismarck du Plessis strike one more fateful blow?

Now came the final scrum. Would the power of Bismarck du Plessis strike one more fateful blow?

The scrum was just inside the Springboks’ half. It was just within range for Morne Steyn if a penalty was conceded. The scrum went down. Gasps from the crowd. No penalty. Whew! A final feed. The Wallaby scrum held. WHEW!!!

Will Genia got hold of the ball and booted it as far as he could into the stands. The crowd erupted as the kick was being made. Wallaby supporters jumped up and down. They hugged each other (even the beefy men of a certain age) and they roared with delight.

As I walked out of the ground I could hear morose Springboks supporters telling each other how they didn’t enjoy the experience of hearing the jubilant Wallaby supporters ear-bashing them about how the best team won.

A well-dressed businessman type passed me as I hurried back to my hotel room to watch the All Blacks–Argentina Pumas quarter-final. He was talking into his mobile: “It’s all on for Eden Park against the Wallabies next Sunday,” he was saying.

The All Blacks coach Graham Henry was amazed at the positive response from his players when he told them that the Wallabies were two-point victors over the Springboks. He wanted the Springboks to win. As a traditionalist he relished the New Zealand–South Africa rugby rivalry. He also believed that in 2011 the Springboks were less of a threat to the All Blacks than the Wallabies. His players, though, told him they couldn’t wait to play the Wallabies. This was the semi-final they wanted.

That response convinced Henry that the All Blacks were going to beat the Wallabies and go through to the World Cup final.

The New Zealand rugby community faced this nightmare going into the All Blacks-Wallabies semi-final. There is Robbie Deans, grinning in his gummy, toothy manner. He is dressed in the Wallaby suit and tie, surrounded by his jubilant players who are holding up the Webb Ellis trophy while Eden Park erupts in massive waves of sound. Silver and golden confetti pours down glittering in the stadium lights that blaze on the prancing, hugging, jumping and champagne-hosing Wallaby group and officials in their yellow scarves. Somehow through the nightmare the cocky voice of George Gregan can be heard, as he did during the RWC 2003 semi-final, yelling out through the hellish dream: “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!” Oh, the horror of it all.

If there was to be a nightmare it had its origins in early December 2007, the day the NZRU completed their final interviews for the All Blacks coach to take the team through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament. Although no announcement had been made, a decision had been taken to re-appoint Graham Henry. This was despite the debacle of Henry’s All Blacks losing the quarter-final match to France in the 2007 RWC tournament.

Somehow through the nightmare the cocky voice of George Gregan can be heard, yelling out through the hellish dream: “Four more years!”.

The day after the final interviews I was down to Coogee Oval in Sydney. The Super Rugby coaches were being prepped on the new ELVs system that was going to be trialled in 2008. After the session, Robbie Deans, the coach of the Crusaders for the 2008 season, was questioned by the Australian rugby media about the All Blacks coaching job. He was non-committal. But he concluded by saying: “It’s the people’s game, the game belongs to them not to the officials or the coaches.”

Deans moved away from the reporters and had a chat with me. He leant on the fence in the manner of a laconic farmer, which he and his family had been in Canterbury since the settlement of the province. He was sure, he said, he wouldn’t get the job of All Blacks coach. He hinted at some sort of hi-jacking the process by the NZRU.

I knew or sensed that if Graham Henry was re-appointed then Deans would accept the offer to coach the Wallabies. John O’Neill, the chief executive of the ARU, had shrewdly moved back the date for the selection of the Wallaby coach until after the NZRU made its decision. After clearing the matter with his family and some rugby friends in Christchurch, Deans decided that he would accept the ARU’s offer to coach the Wallabies.

The other hellish element in a possible Wallabies victory over the All Blacks was Quade Cooper, the player All Blacks supporters loved to hate even though, like Deans, he was a born and bred New Zealander.

Quade Cooper is the epitome of Generation Y. He was born in New Zealand in 1988. He was a prodigious touch-rugby talent as a schoolboy. His family moved to Queensland when he was 16. On a scholarship at the Anglican Church Grammar school he starred in the First XV. He was an Australian Schoolboys flyhalf in 2005 and 2006. A year later he played for the Queensland Reds against the Crusaders in his first super Rugby match. And a year after this he scored a spectacular and winning try for the Wallabies against Italy coming off the reserves bench.

Quade Cooper

Photo via Shafraz Nasser, Flickr

His play, on and off the field, had all the hallmarks of the “why-not-me” syndrome: instant gratification, demanding, unrealistic in self-analysis, seeking frequent reassurance, needy for praise and self-indulgent. On the field Cooper was brilliant, the “Picasso of the Pass,” with dazzling speed of hand and thought to set-up attacks from anywhere on the field, sometimes from behind his own try line.

There was a dark side to this genius. He lacked the inclination to put his body on the line to make necessary tackles. In tough situations for his team he disappeared from the battle. There was a phony toughness about his behaviour, a sort of sly swagger. In 2010 he accepted a justice mediation settlement to avoid court charges of allegations he stole two laptops from a residence in Surfers Paradise. Cooper was supported by the ARU at this dire time. He rewarded the ARU by refusing to sign a generous renewal contract unless his total payment was a dollar more than that of Will Genia. This made Cooper the highest paid Wallaby on contract.

In 2011, in the lead-up to the World Cup tournament, Cooper enjoyed a superb rugby season. The Reds won their first Super Rugby tournament, defeating the Crusaders in the final. Cooper was the Man of the Match with some sensational passing and running plays. Then the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks in the last Tri Nations Test on the year. Early on in the Test Cooper kneed the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. The All Blacks were convinced the assault was deliberate. “I thought he deliberately kneed Richie McCaw in the face and I think everyone else did too,” Graham Henry told the New Zealand media after the Judicial Commission ruled on the “balance of probabilities” that the contact was accidental. Cooper denied he was a “cheap shot” artist.

The New Zealand public made Cooper their villain for the World Cup tournament. He was a traitor, a New Zealander trying to take away the Webb Ellis trophy from its rightful nation. I saw this sign at one of the Wallabies matches that linked (unfairly it must be said) Cooper and Robbie Deans as the great defectors: A Dingo Has Stolen Our Quadie.

A New Zealand Herald Digipoll survey claimed that the Wallabies had become the team New Zealanders least wanted to see win the World Cup. The New Zealand Herald even carried extracts of the column I wrote about all this hyped-up nonsense in a news story headlined: Cuzzies No More – Oz Feels The Fury: “Sydney Morning Herald columnist Spiro Zavos, who was born in New Zealand, commented… that the anti-Wallaby feelings among New Zealanders and the hatred hinged on Wallaby Quade Cooper because of his stupidity in continually trying to bait Richie McCaw… This behavior, he wrote, is the equivalent of farting in the cathedral of New Zealand rugby.”

Behind the mutual antagonism was the growing fear from New Zealanders and the high anticipation from Australians that Cooper would be the nemesis of the All Blacks. His high-risk game had the potential to lift the Wallabies and make them into an extraordinary team. The Generation Y star, with typical bravado and arrogance, had created the persona for himself as the “Wizard of Oz.”

The New Zealand public made Cooper their villain for the tournament. He was a traitor, a New Zealander trying to take away the Webb Ellis trophy from its rightful nation.

The Wizard, though, played poorly against the Springboks in the quarter-final. The Wallabies centre Anthony Fainga’a had a warning for the All Blacks about targeting Cooper in the Eden Park decider: “I can tell you this. He never has had two bad games in a row. Never.”

Never say never.

Cooper opened the semi-final against the All Blacks by kicking off short and flat, and out on the full. This was the start of his worst game in the Wallaby jersey. The great All Black captain Wilson Whineray watching at Eden Park told reporters after the match that he knew then that the Wallabies would not recover from this initial mistake.

Quade Cooper getting tackled

The All Blacks coaching staff noticed that Cooper was being hidden on the wing when the Wallabies were on defence. So they targeted him throughout the semi-final as the weak link. He was given high balls to try and catch. He was smashed whether he made the catch or not. The big forwards ran at him. Typically, Cooper blamed his lacklustre, mistake-ridden play in the semi-final on the game plan imposed by Deans. In a Don’t Blame Me After The Stuff-Up explanation, Cooper diverted criticism from himself to Deans. “It might not have been the best game plan,” he told reporters. “I think there was a time where we may have been over-thinking.”

On the sports blogs in Australia, after the Wallabies were comprehensively defeated, Robbie Dean was accused, stupidly, by many diehard Australian supporters including some former Wallabies of being a Trojan Horse for the NZRU. The nightmare had somehow galloped away from New Zealand and into the Australian consciousness.

The All Blacks coaches had a major selection dilemma to solve before the semi-final. Who was going to play number 10? Colin Slade or Aaron Cruden?

A friend, who is an All Blacks supporter, emailed me after the All Blacks quarter-final hard-fought victory against the Pumas to make the point that Cruden had out-played Slade so effectively he looked like an adequate back up for Dan Carter. I emailed a reply: “But only if Graham Henry is smart enough to pick him ahead of Slade.” Then the news came in that Slade was out of the tournament because of a groin injury.

My friend sent me another email: “I have called in the hand of God to solve Henry’s problem.”

When Piri Weepu, the canny All Black halfback, converted his final penalty to give New Zealand a 20–6 lead over Australia with eight minutes of play left, it was a signal for the vast crowd at Eden Park to go beserk. The chant of “All Blacks! All Blacks! All Blacks!” was backed by 40,000 spectators, presuming about 20,000 non-Kiwis in the crowd, smashing their feet on the concrete to make a rugby noise that was intimidating: “All Blacks! All Blacks! All Blacks!” Bang! Bang! Bang!

I have called in the hand of God to solve Henry’s problem.

The Wallabies swept on to the attack. Could they pull off a miracle victory?

Sitting beside me, a young man in his 20s dressed in All Blacks gear, started to moan “Oh shit” at various levels of intensity as drive after drive from the Wallabies pushed the side nearer the All Blacks tryline. The ball squirted loose. There was a mad scramble for it. More moans of “Oh shit.” Then he erupted in a roar of triumph when the All Blacks forced a ruck penalty.

By now there was only a minute or so left in the match. You could see Richie McCaw giving a smile of satisfaction. Later he explained that Will Genia had said to him: “Well done.” There was none of the George Gregan RWC 2003 braggart sledge of “Four more years” from McCaw. He was thinking even then, he said later, of the All Blacks not “getting ahead” of themselves.

The All Blacks indulged in some other uncharacteristic gamesmanship now that the game was won. Jerome Kaino, whose mighty tackle on Digby Ioane saved a certain and potentially game-changing try, patted David Pocock on the head when he conceded a penalty at the ruck. There was time for one more Wallaby backline thrust. Ferocious and accurate tackling, especially on James O’Connor, forced a loose ball. Richard Kahui booted it down the field into Wallabies territory. Racing back in cover was Quade Cooper. Cooper bravely took the tackle. Then he was smashed into touch. A group of jubiliant All Blacks gathered around Kahui. They exchanged high fives and hugged each other.

Four more years, four more years!

One of the All Blacks gave Cooper a verbal spray of abuse.

Rolling choruses of “Four more years, four more years, FOUR MORE YEARS!” swept around the stadium. “Four more years, four more years, FOUR MORE YEARS!”

That was part one of a two-part essay about the All Blacks’ quest for Rugby World Cup glory on home soil. Read part two here.

Written by Spiro Zavos.

Spiro is a founding writer on The Roar, and long-time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

Design by Elise Boyd

Editing by Patrick Effeney

Image Credit: All images are Copyright AAP Australia, unless otherwise noted.