James Lawton: All calm with the All Blacks
New Zealand legends 'The Needle' and 'Old Buck' join the rest of the country in being soothed by team's victory over Australia
In formal competition there would be around 4.4 million contenders, most of them daubed in some form of war paint. So this morning we have to be fairly arbitrary about the identity of New Zealand's most passionate – and substantial – rugby fan. The nomination here is Fred Allen – or to give him his full title, Sir Frederick Richard Allen, Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
This honour is nice but not so vital to his continued enjoyment of life, at the age 91, as his most prized, indeed his only material legacy from brilliant service in the cause of the All Blacks – two tickets and a parking space for every big match at Eden Park, where here the night before last he saluted one of the "greatest performances ever turned in by men wearing the black jerseys".
Sir Fred's entirely positive analysis is the perfect weighty accolade for All Black coach, Graham Henry, as he prepares his team for the last act of the seventh World Cup against France on Sunday, which should, if a grain of logic is in working place, lift 24 years of apparently inexorable paranoia.
Given all the fear and loathing that obsessed New Zealanders before Henry's team quite superbly overwhelmed Australia, the most striking quality of heroes like Richie McCaw, Cory Jane, Israel Dagg and the consummate old warrior Brad Thorn was the certainty of their work. They opened with a blitzkrieg, then sucked the life out of the Wallabies and Sir Fred's tribute – along with a euphoric assessment from another great name from the past, unbeaten All Black skipper Wayne "Buck" Shelford – applied impressive seals to a surge of national contentment.
The Kiwis were, of course, given some pretty severe lectures about their lack of grown-up perspective earlier in the tournament when the nation's leading sportsman, the sublime fly-half Daniel Carter, went down injured. From England, which has been known to be mortified by the catastrophes of metatarsal misadventures by such pillars of national achievement as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, there was even a stern ticking off for the member of Carter's first club Southbridge who made an emotional cross-reference to the earthquakes that had devastated parts of the country. However, the culprit did point out that he had made a metaphorical lunge rather than a strict equation of sporting disappointment and human tragedy, about which he knew well enough as a life-long resident of the shattered Canterbury region.
Whatever the validity of the criticism – there is no doubt New Zealand was getting a little overwrought by the possibility that they might, as the world's leading rugby nation, again fail to reproduce their one and only world title performance in the inaugural tournament in 1987 – Sir Fred and Old Buck, who is a mere 53 and the winner of a battle with cancer, could hardly be accused of going over the top.
Had they done so, it would have been a somewhat bizarre betrayal of the meaning of their lives.
Sir Fred, a bold, side-stepping fly-half, suffered some early career disruption with the need to serve in the 27th and 30th Battalions of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Second World War, from which he emerged as one of the jewels in a New Zealand service team which toured Britain in 1946.
He played 21 matches for the All Blacks, all of them as captain, and in a two-year stint as coach he won all his 14 games, partly through the brilliant contribution of his massive player Brian Lochore, the inspiration of a team rated by many the finest to visit Britain and France, and also because his ability to analyse performance was so acute – which was one reason, along with the fact that he earned his living by manufacturing women's dresses, he was known as "The Needle".
Shelford is ranked as one of the greatest of No 8s who, between 1987 and 1990, led an unbeaten All Black team with blood-curdling intensity. In one of his early Test matches, the Battle of Nantes against France, he insisted that a physiotherapist sew up his torn scrotum so that he could return to the field. The inconvenience came at the bottom of a ruck and also included the loss of four teeth. Unfortunately, Buck – who is still revered by All Black fans – had his gallantry rewarded only by a swift blow to the head which left him concussed.
Yesterday he was hugely animated by the latest performance of his old team. "It was pretty hard to keep down the emotion," he reported. "There was a lot of pressure on these guys to perform and they all put their hands up. There have been different reasons for the All Black failures in World Cups but the one that has been ever present is terrific pressure. On Sunday the boys just shoved it aside.
"The French, we all know, can be tricky, but if New Zealand produce anything like the game they delivered against Australia there shouldn't be a problem. If I have one sadness it is that Wales will not be involved in what could have been a great final – they were a credit to the tournament and should win the Six Nations hands down. Even with 14 men, they should have beaten the French but with a full team they would have done it by at least 20 points."
His other deep regret is the red card given to the young Welsh captain, Sam Warburton, a fellow back-rower who in a few weeks had impressed him as much as any modern player.
Shelford, ferocious though he was on the field, is not exactly sanguine about the dangers of violent play. He works zealously for a foundation which cares for the most serious victims of an extremely hard game. However, he says: "The bad thing was that judgement was made so quickly, without a second to consider what had happened truly, without any consultation with fellow officials or a proper look at the incident which technology could have provided. A yellow card would have been the right response."
Warburton has to rebuild his career now but Shelford is confident that it can happen seamlessly enough. He will learn from his experience, as the All Blacks proved they had so demonstrably with the depth of their performance against the Wallabies.
Yesterday Henry spoke of the dissecting of past All Black failures in the World Cup.
He said that the starting point of the campaign, which began in the rubble of quarter-final defeat by France in the last tournament, was an understanding that New Zealand, like no other rugby nation, had always put vast store in the legacy of each group of All Black players.
Every Test match had to be won. Yet World Cup rugby made other demands, and most pressingly the need to understand the pacing of an effort and an understanding that sudden death brought new demands.
He suggested that the lesson might finally have been learnt. At the coach's side was a man who has grown hugely these last few weeks. Brad Thorn, uniquely effective in rugby league, in the colours of Australia, and one of rugby union's most specialised positions at lock, spoke for the passion of this land yesterday.
He said: "The support we have had has been unbelievable ... they have been cheering us along from Stewart Island to the top of North Island and people tell me that is pressure. For me, it's a lift. Growing up in Australia, I felt the same way, cheering the Blacks at World Cups. To be out on the field, receiving that, well, it's pretty special. Whatever happens there is sadness for me because this will be my last game in a black jersey."
Thorn is 36 and immense. He was stupendous against Australia, remorseless and playing as though he was going beyond his own skin. The Needle and Old Buck were particularly appreciative. A big wind is blowing in from the sea but the heart of a great sports nation has rarely beaten so serenely. New Zealand is at peace – for at least a few more days.
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