New Zealanders hope to be on top of the world


New Zealanders' anxiety levels are reaching a peak today as the country eyes a victory in the Rugby World Cup final that would overcome two decades of sporting disappointment – and banish memories of a very bad year.

Six weeks after the All Blacks kicked off the tournament with a victory over Tonga, the team returns to Eden Park tomorrow to play France. Having comfortably dispatched Les Bleus earlier in the tournament, and beaten an Australian team considered their strongest rival in last weekend's semi-final,expectations are running high that the Kiwis will raise the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1987.

Guarding against any sense of hubris is the knowledge that, despite being the dominant rugby team of the professional era, the All Blacks have routinely come undone at World Cups. Nevertheless, the country has been steadily succumbing to a sense of euphoria that New Zealanders could finally have something to celebrate.

It has been one of the worst years in memory as multiple disasters have struck. Twenty-nine miners were killed in an explosion at Pike River in November; three months later, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake levelled much of central Christchurch, the second-largest city, leaving 181 people dead.

Throughout the troubles, the rugby tournament stood out; now that it has arrived, it has dominated national attention. A record television audience of almost half of the 4.4 million population watched last weekend's semi-final, with greater numbers expected tomorrow.

Even during the tournament, rugby has partially pushed bad news to the margins. Last month, two major ratings agencies downgraded New Zealand's credit rating. Five days later a ship ran aground off the east coast, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil.

"The euphoria around the World Cup has served really to sideline more serious focus on a range of quite significant issues," said Dr Peter Thompson, a lecturer at Victoria University. A general election will be held next month, although there is no talk of politics to be found. If the All Blacks become world champions tomorrow, the government is expected to romp home.