I have a soft spot in my heart for New Zealand; it’s like the kid brother of the English-speaking world. Also, Lord of the Rings was filmed there. No matter who they played in football, I always cheered for the All Whites/Football Ferns (especially when the opponent was Italy.) But football is one thing, and New Zealand is not a particularly successful footballing nation. In New Zealand, Rugby (Union) is king, and the nation’s heart lies with the All Blacks, who despite being the best in the world year after year, have not won the Rugby World Cup since 1987, where they beat France in the final.
Coincidentally, 1987 was the last time the Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand. After that New Zealand made all-too-early exits from the tournament, including the loss in the 1995 final memorialized by the rather mediocre movie Invictus. Twice those early exits came at the hands of France.
This year the stars seemed to align for the All Blacks. Again, the World Cup was in New Zealand. Again, New Zealand was the best team in the world by a mile and included the great Dan Carter. But again it looked something was going terribly wrong. First, the All Blacks lost the Tri Nation Series to mortal enemies Australia. The tournament began well enough, but then a host of injuries beset the All Blacks, most worryingly to Dan Carter, who was gone from the tournament after the group stage. And then, despite an imperious march to the final, the final round opponent was France. The All Blacks had already beaten France in the group stage, and France probably should not have made it to the final to begin with (certainly the Welsh are justified to think not.) But they did, and history is not destiny.
France outplayed New Zealand for large portions of the match, but, as in 1987, New Zealand overcame their Gallic opponents, this time 8-7. New Zealand finally ended over two decades of hurt, disappointment, and charges of choking to become the team with the best record at the Rugby World Cup (tying Australia and South Africa for two World Cup victories apiece, but a better overall record.) For a small island nation, that is quite an accomplishment.
But can we please stop the talk about ending 24 years of disappointment? It’s a lazy cliché from lazy sportswriters. 24 years ago, New Zealand won the World Cup, which means that for the next four years New Zealand reigned as World Champions. Ergo, it has been 20 years of disappointment. The team that really had 24 years of hurt is France, who lost in 1987 and then continued losing to this day. Three finals but no tournament victories in 24 years. Cheer for New Zealand all you want, but spare a thought for the crushed French rugby fan; he may need it today.
This is not to say that New Zealand’s disappointment has not been real. As any Kiwi can tell you, it has been a long, difficult, and embarrassing two decades, despite the All Blacks dazzling success outside of the World Cup. The past year and a half has seen a lot of redemption in international sports. To my mind, this is the third consecutive World Cup in which a powerful nation with a long history of underachievement finally broke through and won when it counted: Spain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, India at the Cricket World Cup earlier this year, and now New Zealand.
So onward to 2015 and England and Wales. And bravo New Zealand. Here’s hoping you’ll be the first three-time champions.