James Lawton: Call it treachery, but a small piece of me wants to see an All Black triumph
A New Zealand victory would give excellence and consistent striving their day in all the years of sore disappointment and underachievement
It may be a little early in the day, and some might also worry about a hint of treachery, but no apologies here this morning for raising a glass of the fine Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough to both the meaning and the hopes of New Zealand rugby.
The hard-hitting Tongans are likely to be dispatched in some style and, after all, the exquisite Audrey Hepburn did once declare, "It's 5pm somewhere in the world, darling."
Certainly, some small English gesture might be welcome at this dawn of the seventh rugby union World Cup – and so soon after the gross impertinence of our borrowing the All Black uniform as a second strip. As inappropriateness goes, that was surely up there beyond the borders of sacrilege.
No doubt someone is already aching to point out that with one win apiece, New Zealand and England stand equal in the roll call of World Cup winners – and, yes, it is also true that the team Martin Johnson sends out against Argentina tomorrow has inherited a formidable tradition of achievement after the triumph in Sydney eight years ago and an unlikely runners-up finish in Paris in 2007.
But then, however England perform over the next few weeks there is surely a compelling case to say that, if they cannot turn back the tides of probability on a third straight occasion, an All Black success would bring an exhilaration all of its own.
It would, within the parameters of sport, even up the ledger somewhat, and give excellence and consistent striving their day in all the years of sore disappointment and sometimes unfathomable underachievement, which stretch back through every World Cup except their first and only victory in the inaugural tournament on home soil in 1987.
It would also bring, it is maybe not too fanciful to imagine when you remember quite how deeply the average New Zealander, one of just four million of them of course, identifies with the prowess of his rugby team, a degree of aid and comfort to that embattled stretch of country that used to run with such implacable certainty from the now earthquake-ravaged Christchurch into the plains of Canterbury.
Indeed, if Richie McCaw's team announce themselves winners in Auckland next month there should be little difficulty in picking out arguably the epicentre of New Zealand celebration. It is likely to be the small town of Southbridge, birthplace of the world's most gifted rugby player, Danny Carter.
Southbridge, 28 miles south-west of Christchurch, is like so many small towns in New Zealand. It has 721 people, 260 houses and nine rugby teams. The rugby club was established in 1871 and for most of the time since has been announcing itself as an archetypal foundation of the New Zealand passion for the oval ball. Carter wasn't their first All Black when he burst into international recognition eight years ago but the shirt he handed to the club after a dramatic debut against Wales is understandably occupying pride of place on its honours board.
When Carter had still to accumulate a quarter of his current total of 83 Test caps, he was already being embraced as something more than a phenomenally talented outside-half.
He was, the reigning club president announced while opening up the clubhouse on a winter afternoon of brilliant sunshine, someone who had restored the roots of New Zealand rugby, returned it to a past where the line of succession was unthreatened by a drift away from the countryside and, still less, the impact of an earthquake which would cast long-term doubts about the workability of the land which in everyone's living memory had been covered in wheat and landmarked by a church, a war memorial and a rugby field.
Chris McKinnon declared: "Go into every little town in the country and they will tell you that Danny Carter has given us the most precious thing apart from identity and pride and belief in our past, which we know in rugby has been great, but also the future. He has given us hope that we can remake past greatness.
"The fear was that with the farms going mechanised and more and more young people having to go to the big cities for employment, our rugby culture was in trouble. But you see what Danny has done and you say, 'Here is an example for everyone to follow'. Ask any of those little kids running out there and ask them who they want to be and they will tell you, 'Danny Carter'."
There was every reason for such encouragement back in 2005, when the emerging Carter cut the British and Irish Lions into so many pieces one night in Wellington and the future had never seemed less wired for ambush.
But of course a forlorn pattern did not change in the 2007 World Cup. The ignominies of all those previous failures returned more hauntingly than ever when the wiles of Carter were insufficient on a quarter-final day when the French made one of their periodic discoveries that they were capable of beating anyone in the world.
It means that this morning the rugby world once again examines the possibility that the All Blacks are merely temporary favourites in the game that has dictated the nation's heart rate for so long. The sense here, though, is one easily shared with Southbridge. This one says it is time to lift not only the glass but the heart of a great sports nation.
World Cup fixtures
Today N Zealand v Tonga, 9.30am, Auckland
Tomorrow France v Japan, 7am, Auckland
14 Sep Tonga v Canada, 6am, Whangarei
16 Sep N Zealand v Japan, 9am, Hamilton
18 Sep France v Canada, 9.30am, Napier
21 Sep Tonga v Japan, 8.30am, Whangarei
24 Sep N Zealand v France, 9.30am, Eden Park
27 Sep Canada v Japan, 5am, Napier
1 Oct France v Tonga, 6am, Wellington
2 Oct N Zealand v Canada, 3.30am, Wellington
Tomorrow Scot v Romania, 2am, Invercargill
Tomorrow Argentina v Eng, 9.30am, Dunedin
14 Sep Scot v Georgia, 8.30am, Invercargill
17 Sep Arg v Romania, 4.30am, Invercargill
18 Sep England v Georgia, 7am, Dunedin
24 Sep England v Romania, 7am, Dunedin
25 Sep Arg v Scotland, 8.30am, Wellington
28 Sep Georgia v Rom, 7.30am, Pal'ston Nth
1 Oct England v Scotland, 8.30am, Auckland
2 Oct Argentina v Georgia, 1am, Pal'ston Nth
Sunday Australia v Italy, 4.30am, Auckland
Sunday Ireland v USA, 7am, New Plymouth
15 Sep Russia v USA, 8.30am, New Plymouth
17 Sep Australia v Ireland, 9.30am, Auckland
20 Sep Italy v Russia, 8.30am, Nelson
23 Sep Australia v USA, 9.30am, Wellington
25 Sep Ireland v Russia, 6am, Rotorua
27 Sep Italy v USA, 7.30am, Nelson
1 Oct Australia v Russia, 3.30am, Nelson
2 Oct Ireland v Italy, 8.30am, Dunedin
Tomorrow Fiji v Namibia, 4.30am, Rotorua
Sunday S Africa v Wales, 9.30am, Wellington
14 Sep Samoa v Namibia, 3.30am, Rotorua
17 Sep S Africa v Fiji, 7am, Wellington
18 Sep Wales v Samoa, 4.30am, Hamilton
22 Sep S Africa v Namibia, 9am, Auckland
25 Sep Fiji v Samoa, 3.30am, Auckland
26 Sep Wales v Namibia, 7.30am, N Plymouth
30 Sep S Africa v Samoa, 8.30am, Auckland
2 Oct Wales v Fiji, 6am, Hamilton
8 Oct Winner Pool C v runner-up Pool D, 6am, Wellington
8 Oct Winner Pool B v runner-up Pool A, 8.30am, Auckland
9 Oct Winner Pool D v runner-up Pool C, 6am, Wellington
9 Oct Winner Pool A v runner-up Pool B, 8.30am, Auckland
15 Oct Winner Q1 v winner Q2, 9am, Auckland
16 Oct Winner Q3 v winner Q4, 9am, Auckland
Third place play-off
21 Oct 8.30am, Auckland
23 Oct 9am, Auckland
(all times BST; matches on ITV1 or ITV4)
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