New Zealand ready to have some fun
September 8, 2011
Samoa greeted their fans with the siva tau © Getty Images
The eyes of the sporting world will fall on New Zealand on Friday night as the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off and a fiercely resilient nation emerges from a dark chapter in its history.
The nation will celebrate the return of the sport's showpiece event to its shores in a rare opportunity for collective elation just a few short months after the Christchurch earthquake brought them to their knees and less than a year since the Pike River mine disaster sent similar shockwaves through the country as a whole.
"The country is ready to have fun," declared Martin Snedden, the man tasked with delivering the tournament. "It is ready to have a party."
That euphoria will encapsulate the relief of the population as a whole at having weathered not only those two brutal blows but also the doubts cast upon them in the wake of the decision to award them the tournament.
Any unfounded concerns that the World Cup is now just too big for New Zealand to host are set to be dismissed emphatically over the next few weeks - engulfed by an unrivalled passion for the sport that will make for a memorable event and more importantly a powerful advert for the game.
Stadium limitations may mean that the tournament will not be as 'big' as the unprecedented success in France four years ago but you sense the 'Stadium of four million' promised by tournament organisers will leave indelible memories and reap rewards just as valuable in terms of engaging existing and new fans.
The one thing out of their control is the rugby served up to the fans in New Zealand and around the world. We do not need a series of classic matches to propel the game to greater heights - although the odd epic will no doubt help to cement this tournament's place in the history of the competition. What we do ask for is evidence that the International Rugby Boards' investment in the development of traditionally smaller nations, funded by the cash cow that is the World Cup, is paying off.
Sadly, an upset of epic proportions remains as unlikely as it has ever been with Namibia in particular looking out of their depth in Pool D - a 'Pool of Death' if there ever was one with South Africa, Wales, Samoa and Fiji vying for supremacy. But the South Islanders ability to stand toe-to-toe with their rivals from the Tri-Nations and the Six Nations respectively suggests the IRB's investment is paying dividends of sorts.
But that quest is a work in progress as a gulf will still be clearly evident and if any side outside the major nations reaches the knock out stages it will be in spite of their shortcomings in terms of resources and preparation and not because of a financial leg up from the sport's governing body.
In many ways the story of this tournament is already known and has been clear since that day in Dublin in 2005 when they were awarded the tournament. This is New Zealand's World Cup to win or lose. Can they thrive on the pressure of hosting the tournament and end a 24 year drought dating back to their victory in the inaugural World Cup or will the weight of expectation and the fear of failure derail their challenge once again.
The world has debated this issue since the All Blacks' latest high-profile failure and endless more column inches will fret over their destiny at each hurdle this time around. Perceived pressure now will be nothing compared to the vice-like grip on their fate come the business end of the competition.
The ability of the World Cup to produce the unexpected is one of the huge draws of the format with the intensity and rarity of the occasion bringing the best out of many sides. As a result the tournament narrative is often lifted by notable cameos such as Tonga and Fiji's attempts to upset the formbook in 2007 or Argentina's more substantial and remarkable run to a third place finish in the same tournament.
But on this occasion you sense that the stars are finally aligning for New Zealand and not even Australia's Tri-Nations triumph or South Africa's return to winning ways, both at the All Blacks' expense in recent weeks, or another World Cup showdown with France, so often their bogey side, can deny them a long-awaited success.
The hosts enter the tournament ranked No.1 in the world and with the undoubted talent to claim the sport's biggest prize but they have had both before and come up agonisingly short. What they haven't had, since their initial triumph, was the support of the fans to alert them to the dangers that lie ahead and rally them in times of need.
As a result, I fully expect New Zealand, and not just the All Blacks, to be taking a bow come October 23.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.