New Zealand's most momentous rugby year
December 15, 2011
The All Blacks celebrate their narow Rugby World Cup Final victory over France © Getty Images
New Zealand's two favourite sons ended 2011 as they had begun it, in the media spotlight on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. On the same weekend as Richie McCaw was proclaimed the New Zealand Herald's New Zealander of the Year, Dan Carter wedded his sweetheart in a scrum of glamour and high heels.
Long before the September kick off of the seventh Rugby World Cup, both McCaw and Carter had been identified as central to the All Blacks' prospects of snaring their first tournament victory since the inaugural triumph over the French all those years ago.
The need to ship Carter off to Melbourne for surgery to a groin injury sustained in a bizarre training field incident long before completion of the pool stages, and the careful nursing of McCaw, who played throughout with a busted foot, could so easily have derailed coach Henry's meticulous planning. The heart-stopping, one- point victory over the French, who rose magnificently to the occasion, as any half competent student of the history of the game knew they were bound to do, reminded us all that there were absolutely no margins for error.
As superbly prepared as the All Blacks were, and as wondrously skilled, collectively and individually, as they proved themselves to be, particularly in the semi-final demolition of the Wallabies, it was will power, the fabled mental durability of the men in black which really confirmed them as the universe's top rugby nation.
There were many heroes who contributed to a triumph which had been earned by New Zealanders' magnificent hosting of this unforgettable World Cup. Their legacy is likely to be a powerful one, one which transcends the five weeks of running around in pursuit of a strange-shaped ball. Like never before New Zealand saw the best of itself, saw itself as visitors see it, saw itself in the mirror and marvelled at its reflection.
The weight of expectation on McCaw and co's shoulders was at times frightening, the burden the accumulated failures of previous World Cup campaigns. That millstone has now been consigned to wherever millstones end up, so that the defence of the trophy in 2015, presumably under the coaching guidance of Steve Hansen, will be free of those historical pressures.
If Hansen is the anointed one, it will be interesting to see how he operates without Graham Henry and Wayne Smith and who he appoints as his assistants. With the passage of time we may also gain some intriguing and perhaps unexpected insights into the dynamics which drove the triumvirate. Hopefully the relief associated with this year's triumph will encourage him to consider a makeover to his image as a dour, humourless fellow.
Approaching his 31st birthday and armed with a new four-year contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union, Richie McCaw will continue as All Black skipper, but it is hard to imagine him still leading the side in England in defence of its title. Since bursting into the side and displacing the worn-out Rodney So'oialo, Kieran Read has always seemed McCaw's obvious successor and his claims will only get stronger.
Athletic and multi-skilled, he is probably the All Blacks' best No.8 since Zinzan Brooke. It is difficult, also, to imagine Dan Carter lining up four years hence, the future does seem like Aaron Cruden's, but there is time enough for the emergence of new midfield talent to place alongside the likes of Israel Dagg, Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams. And what to do about Zac Guildford, seemingly in the last chance saloon so soon in his career after another alcohol-fuelled binge in the Cook Islands?
The frighteningly talented Owen Franks will be the mainstay of the All Black scrum for years to come and Sam Whitelock, also with time very much on his side, now emerges as New Zealand's premier lock. Along with skipper-in-waiting Read, the pack will be built around this trio but with plenty of work for the new coaching team to do in building an eight capable of winning in 2015.
No review of New Zealand's most momentous rugby year would be complete without a reference to an individual who made his sporting impact on the cricket field. Martin Snedden did a wonderful job in charge of the World Cup organising team, his calm and clear-sighted intelligence providing just the sort of leadership that this tournament required.
A contender for the Herald's honour, he is unlucky that his efforts coincided with the All Blacks' triumph. Of course, Snedden will not see it like that, the All Blacks' success was the perfect finale to what had been a near flawless effort ever since New Zealand was awarded this World Cup. Perhaps his reward will be more substantial than that offered by a newspaper, I imagine enquiries will have been made about his willingness to be listed somewhere in the New Year's honours list.
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