It was a long wait. The first Rugby World Cup, and the only previous victory for the All Blacks, occured back in 1987, ironically on the same ground against the same team. Eden Park, Auckland versus France. I remember it well, having grown up with the expectation of All Black victory every time they took to the field. Bitter disappointment has prevailed in the intervening 5 World Cups. The usual dose of food poisoning, bad refereeing, forward passes or freak opposition performances. So nearly was this streak repeated last week. But we won.
For New Zealand, rugby is more than a game. All the cliches about sport, nationalism, identity, equality, development etc ring true for our small south pacific nation, Introduced towards the end of the 19th century, rugby quickly became a way of showing prowess in the face of colonial rule. That and war. And not the least, the way the Maori population embraced the physicality of the game and used the sport to forge integration to new levels. Rugby is a pervasive part of what it is to be a New Zealander, and no one opitimizes this better than winning captain, Richie McCaw.
To watch McCaw in the last 10 minutes of the 2011 final, when faced with a relentless press by the French trying to overcome the 1 point deficit, was one of the most inspiring pieces of leadership ever seen in modern rugby. You don’t even need to understand the game, to follow McCaw in those dramatic minutes and see an absolute phenomenon of a player. Playing with a long-standing injury, and looking like he’d been in the boxing ring before kickoff, McCaw proved himself (if that was needed) as the world’s greatest modern player, and probably captain as well.
But as a true Kiwi, being humble, alongside the toughness is McCaw’s trademark. You see, being a cocky bastard, flashing it up, doing stupid things late at night, and blowing your own trumpet (like the modern soccer player) is unacceptable in New Zealand culture, and few with those traits last long, let alone as All Blacks. Time will tell whether McCaw will continue on to the next world cup, which would be his fourth. Regardless of that, he has cemented his name in folklore, as a genuine Kiwi hero who, like some of his predecessors sharing that mantle, (eg. Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Peter Blake or Cpt. Charles Upham) represent a modern form of the dominant iconography of masculinity in New Zealand.
Jock Phillips, writing in 1987 on the history of masculinity in New Zealand described the “rugged practical bloke – fixes anything, strong and tough, keeps his emotions to himself, usually scornful of women”. It was about a puritan work ethic and masculinity based on “mateship” – males united by hardship, in war or through sport, reinforced over a beer at the rural pub. McCaw, and certain other members of the current All Black squad, are modern day representatives of the history of New Zealand postcolonialism rather than one off anomolies. The masculinity retains aspects of the prevaling dominance of yesteryear, alongside nuanced incorporation into modern history which challenges discourses of gender disadvantage.
McCaw’s greatest triumph last weekend, and one of the most important moments in our long sporting history reminds us not only of our place in a larger world, but of our proud heritage where “good, keen blokes” forged a sense of independence and “she’ll be right” attitude, which plowed through adversity, through world wars, through assimilation with the original inhabitants, through countless expressions of ingenuity, natural disasters and finally, the ultimate prize in the game that means more to our nation than just about anything.
Congratulations to Richie MacCaw and the rest of the All Blacks on a well deserved triumph. Four years to relax now, enjoy finally being able to openly say what the world had known for the past 24 years. World Champions.