New Zealand may have gotten a serious case of the Bleus, but that didn’t prevent its beloved All Blacks from sending the entire country into joyous delirium Sunday by winning rugby’s World Cup final over an unexpectedly combative French side, 8-7. The victory not only handed the host Kiwis their first global title since 1987–when they bested France 29-9 in rugby’s first World Cup tournament. New Zealand’s triumph also represented the long-in-coming consecration of a nation that has dominated international rugby for much of the past 30 years and more. Indeed, the All Blacks were so enormously favored to win what was being called “New Zealand’s World Cup” that the main question many fans around the world had was whether it was even possible for the Kiwis to come away empty handed again. When the final whistle blew Sunday night in Auckland, the answer to that was a resounding Non. And that sent the entire breadth of rugby-mad New Zealand into a collective eruption of joy.
No one who really loves rugby could object too much to New Zealand winning its much deserved and overdue second global crown. (Unless perhaps one is Australian. Or maybe South African. Or English. Or—now, I supposed—even French. But especially Australian.). After all, New Zealand has sparkled as one of the sport’s powerhouses for nearly 100 years, and All Black teams have come to best embody those two elements so admired and feared in elite level sports—bone-rattling power and dizzying speed. Their racially integrated, haka performing sides also reflect an admirable degree of ethnic and cultural harmony that earns New Zealand a lot of plaudits more generally in our division-prone world. And with the help of equipment provider and sponsor Adidas, meanwhile, the All Blacks have far out-spaced all other national rugby teams in a way many people (especially Americans) might not expect from rugby: brand recognition. Rugby may be New Zealand’s national religion, but their All Blacks have become the world’s favorite and most identifiable rugby brand. So in many ways, then New Zealand’s World Cup win Sunday was simply order being restored in the universe of rugby.
The victory was also fortunate in involving none of the officiating decisions that marred earlier play (the most notorious of which, ironically, being the absolutely deserved red card for violent play – for “spiking”, or driving a tackled rival down to the ground in a head-first manner—that left Wales at a one man disadvantage for most of its semi-final loss to France). It also avoided another potential source of scandal: the protests that would have gone up if France had won. Up until the final, les Bleus had generally been uninspired and seriously under-achieving—losing to Tonga in the group matches, and scarcely outlasting Wales in the semi-final 8-7 that the Welsh deserved to win. Indeed, France really only looked alive during their quarterfinal defeat of England (yes! You go home Engs!!!) 19-12. Their lack-luster performance sparked a torrent of criticism when they earned a spot in a final detractors said the French didn’t deserve—a spasm of not unmerited denunciation that would have grown deafening had les Bleus won Sunday.
And they well could have. With less than 15 minutes left to play, les Bleus were granted a penalty kick that would have put them ahead—perhaps for good. But like similar All Black scoring occasions earlier, the French kick sailed wide—and left the one point Kiwi advantage standing. The uncharacteristically feisty France also put together some potent second half passing and running sequences that had the host All Blacks on their heels—and looking unusually defensive. But in the end, the French came up one point short—handing that All Blacks their second world title (and giving Wales fans, no doubt, some vindication). In other words, Sunday’s outcome works for just about everyone.
Oh sure, French fans would have loved the excuse to take a break from debt crisis fretting to celebrate their first rugby world title. But the All Blacks were such favorites going in (and regarded as so thoroughly due another global crown) that there were few long faces bumming around French streets after the final whistle. (Even in the rugby barmy Basque country, driver kept honking horns after the match as though les Bleus had won.
Which, in a way, they did just by making it as far as the final). Meanwhile, in addition to New Zealand finally getting the world crown it is generally considered to deserve, the collective joy rising from the country will go a way towards healing some slow-mending wounds. With damage from last February’s deadly earthquakes still visible—and acutely felt–it goes without saying that the All Blacks and their fans dedicated their new global victims of the tremors, both living and dead.
Which is another reason why it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting much—if at all—to New Zealand’s new world title. Even Aussies.