Six of the biggest weeks in New Zealand’s history have come to an end and Bill is safely under lock and key back where 4.4 million Kiwis believe he has always rightfully belonged. They nearly blew it again of course. But while you could argue that the better team on the day lost the final, nobody can truly argue that the best team in the world did not win the trophy.
For us it marked the end of a truly epic tour and what a weekend to round it off. It was the ultimate case of a marathon, not a sprint. Having pledged a low key Saturday night we failed to even walk past one bar before we got sucked into the excitement and anticipation that was everywhere. Many of the Kiwis were celebrating already. There was a sense that this was not a final but a coronation of the rightful King who had been denied his birthright by more foul means than fair for far too long. The French were no more than willing lambs to the slaughter.
On Sunday, bleary of eye and fuzzy of head, we stiffened the sinews, summoned the blood and headed back out into the fold. It was carnage. By 3.30 you didn’t have a prayer of getting into a single bar around the harbour and viaduct areas of the city. O’Hagans, of which more later, had a 50m queue outside it. We therefore made for Neighbourhood Bar in Kingsland which has been our favoured pre-match haunt. We snuck in around 4pm, within 15 minutes there was a queue and by 4.30 you could hardly move. With nearly 5 hours to kick off, we were approaching the game off a seriously long run up. Once again you had the unmistakeable feeling you were involved in something a bit special.
And so to the game, with anticipation at fever pitch and Hutch private touring off to the media seats again. Justin, oracle that he is, commented in the warm up that New Zealand looked more tense than before previous games. Piri Weepu’s goal kicking nightmare seemed to confirm this, his routine disintegrating completely. Just as the crowd around us were beginning to get a little uneasy, Tony Woodcock burst through some shocking line out defence and the crowd went wild, nobody more so than the chap four to my right who had 20 big ones on the big prop at forties. There was a feeling that the floodgates might open.
No such thing occurred of course. One interesting feature of this World Cup is the way the locals have created new heroes after the loss of Dan Carter. Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden have been cheered to the rafters but the big new hero has been Weepu. T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Calm down, Piri’s on’ have been everywhere. By contrast, the name Stephen Donald gives New Zealanders palpitations. To say they don’t rate him is putting it mildly. When Cruden went down injured and Donald appeared on the big screen removing his tracksuit top an audible groan went round the stadium.
But then something strange happened. The supporters as one decided ‘well he’s our man now, let’s get behind him’ and his entrance was cheered to the rafters. One was reminded of the awful way the Twickenham crowd treated Charlie Hodgson simply for not being Jonny Wilkinson. The All Blacks fans, normally so reserved and critical, provided a lesson in getting behind your men no matter what you think of them. Donald repaid them handsomely while Weepu left the field to near silence when he was substituted having had a shocker. Weird how things work out.
As the game neared its denouement the tension was unbearable. Having started the game rooting for the All Blacks we were now firmly in the French corner, our British love of an underdog inspired by the way they had risen to the occasion and outplayed the favourites. The explosion of relief at the end was spine-tingling and over the next few minutes it gave way to sheer undiluted elation. It is impossible to explain what rugby means to the people out here unless you have seen it. It is such an intricate part of their national identity and an essential driver of their self esteem.
They are a hard bunch to please though, the Kiwis. One or two even announced that it took the edge off it that they had not won emphatically and had been outplayed for large parts of the game. Our response that beggars can’t be choosers went down predictably badly.
The rest of the evening is an absolute blur but I think it fair to say that O’Hagan’s was kept in business for the foreseeable future. With Monday a bank holiday in these parts, the party went on and on and you still couldn’t get a table in the Viaduct on Monday evening.
There is a feeling that the entire nation has experienced a watershed moment, that order has been restored and all is right with the world again. Every New Zealander is walking a bit taller this week. We have had some fun winding them up along the way but they have been wonderful, exemplary hosts and it has been a privilege to witness a truly fantastic country having its prayers answered. The New Zealand team and nation throughly deserve it and with that monkey off their back it could be a while before the rest of the world sees Old Bill again.
by Stuart Peel