Agony to ecstasy in 80 minutes
October 25, 2011
Graham Henry enjoys the benefits of winning the World Cup © Getty Images
As the All Blacks belted out one final haka, and as the French, led by the inspirational Thierry Dusautoir advanced in response, the tension and nervousness were palpable: you could see it in their eyes, you could hear the tremors in their voices, you could sense the anxiety in their body language.
And if your average New Zealand punter was feeling like this, imagine what it must have been like for the players and their coaching staff. Assembled in front of the television in a beach-side lounge on the east coast a couple of hours north of Auckland, this was a scene being enacted throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand as the All Blacks moved towards their agonising moment of destiny. Has there ever been a sporting occasion that so united a nation and so tapped into the complex dynamics of a national psyche? Of course there has, but for the past seven weeks, and throughout last Sunday evening in particular, it was the turn of New Zealanders to endure the agonies and the ecstasies. Only a game? Whatever…
The spectre of defeat loomed large during those final thirty minutes at Eden Park, the ridiculous pre-match hype foolishly ignoring the lessons of rugby history and blinding many pundits who were old enough to know better to the likelihood of the French turning up in all their glory. As had happened to the Welsh the previous weekend all it needed was one successful goal kick. The effects of defeat upon New Zealand and New Zealanders are too frightening to contemplate, although it might have made the impending general election more interesting than the procession it now looks likely to become.
As Richie finally got his paws on the trophy, one of my mates wondered how long it would be before he would become Sir Richie. They wouldn't stop there surely. Sir Graham perhaps? McCaw's battered body has been the cause of much speculation and angst all year, and you couldn't help feeling that the tank was close to empty during this tournament, that whatever energy sources he was drawing upon were largely driven by will power. Especially in the absence of Dan Carter, McCaw must have calculated that he just had to play, regardless. So, might this now be the time for Richie to consider retirement? Not tomorrow, necessarily, or even next week, but after a suitable period of reflection and weighing of options. His legend is guaranteed, his place amongst the pantheon of All Black skippers assured, but do we really want to see him limping around the world's rugby stadia in the next couple of years as young pretenders like Pocock and Warburton fight out the back row succession? I don't think so.
With assistant coach Wayne Smith moving to the Chiefs and Super Rugby in 2012 and the assistant coach Steve Hansen widely tipped to become All Blacks head coach in the near future, now would also seem to be the time for Graham Henry to step aside, the task magnificently accomplished, his reputation as one of the world's best secure. It is not difficult to envisage him being given some sort of coaching development or mentoring role within the greater scheme of things but this would now seem to be Hansen's time as thoughts turn towards the defence in England in 2015.
All things being equal, Kieran Read seems destined to lead the All Blacks into that campaign and the search for successive world titles. Read is a phenomenon, hampered by his pre-tournament injury but an essential part of the All Black machine. His readiness for Test football perfectly coincided with the demise of Rodney So'oialo and he demonstrated his captaincy credentials right from the start. The sort of player that other players will follow, he never stops running, a complete nightmare to play against.
If a week is a long time in sport, politics and life in general then of course four years is a geological age. But it is possible to see the outlines of a side for 2015 and there is plenty of time for emerging talent to, well, emerge. Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Aaron Cruden amongst the backs and Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock amongst the forwards are clearly young enough to still be around in England. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should stay in the moment and honour the likes of Brad Thorn, Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Jerome Kaino and Cory Jane. Formidable rugby warriors whose mental fortitude enabled them to stand at the top of the Eden Park abyss on Sunday evening and simply refuse to be pushed into it. For that every New Zealander will be eternally grateful.
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