James Lawton: For the good of the old game, it's simply got to be All Black


Back in Johannesburg last year it became so vital for football that Spain won the World Cup.

The conviction swept over boundaries and pushed aside tribal loyalty as it centred on the meaning of one team. And so it is here again tomorrow at Eden Park, the most formidable citadel of another ballgame.

For one day at least the All Blacks play rugby, as Spain did football, for the world – for the one, at least, still able to determine what is right and wrong in sport.

Passion for the highest levels of performance and belief in some ultimate competitive integrity is right. Accepting something less, some fiddling, cynical compromise is wrong. This may be simplicity but amid the games we play can there be a sweeter one?

In South Africa, Spain were the best team, had the superior values and anyone who knew the difference between a professional sportsman of high calibre and a thug had to celebrate the late strike by Andres Iniesta that killed off a Dutch team that had betrayed, apart from anything else, its own brilliant tradition.

For almost all the same reasons – so far at least the unequivocally brutal side of France rugby has not surfaced – the fervent wish here is that New Zealand win their second World Cup as Spain won their first.

It would be another affirmation of all that is best in the sport, not just today but down the years.

Also it would be a triumph for professionals who kept faith with the point of their game – and never lost sight of its significance to their people. People, this is, of all races and social class, who are united, in rugby more than any other area of national life, by the belief that hard work and personal discipline will ultimately bring its own reward.

This isn't to say that every step made by the latest edition of the All Blacks has been unwaveringly in the company of the angels.

They had their version of England's Dwarfgate fiasco when Cory Jane and Israel Dagg had to be dragged out of a bar by their team-mate Piri Weepu a few days before the quarter-final with Argentina. However, as they were dragged out of the bar – they were made to feel that what they had done was wrong.

The All Black reaction was profoundly different from that of England. Instead of bone-headed bombast, talk of it being a sad world if rugby players couldn't go out "for a few beers" and enjoy a "bit of banter", the New Zealanders, managers and fellow players, came down hard, the management imposing fixed fines and final warnings. Jane and Dagg have played like titans ever since, by way, they have suggested, of the best possible acts of contrition.

The miscreants had been provoked into remembering what the All Blacks were supposed to represent.

In the semi-final the performance against Australia was astonishing in its commitment, as intense in its way as anything you saw at ringside in the days of Ali and Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Such was the range of the All Black play, from breath-taking work in the backfield by the boys travelling the redemption road, Dagg and Jane, and the hugely powerful Ma'a Nonu, to the brilliance of allegedly wounded skipper Richie McCaw, it is almost inconceivable that the French, mutinous, perverse and extraordinarily fortunate to survive their semi-final against 14-man Wales, should conspire to confound the New Zealanders, as they did in the World Cups of 1999 and 2007.

Yet it is, in the view of two of the greatest of former All Blacks, Colin "Pinetree" Meads and Wayne "Buck" Shelford, a possibility that cannot be discounted. Meads points out that the French have a streak of intransigence that can erupt in the least promising of circumstances. Shelford reminds them that if sufficiently pressurised the French also have an historic tendency to indulge in a little "filth", things like "stomping on hands and ankles".

He adds: "All the internal disputes, the poor games, the criticism might be getting to the French and could lead the players to respond in a number of ways. When you go into a jungle you never know what is going to happen in dark places. I'm not saying this is going to happen, but if it does the players will have to sort it out right away because the referee will not always see what's going on."

However, if certain cautions are in place – inevitably when you consider the record of rugby's No 1 nation in the sport's defining tournament, just one win in six attempts – there is also a wider sense than ever before that the All Blacks have waged a superb campaign.

The potentially devastating loss of the world's best player, Daniel Carter, and worries about the foot injury of the iconic captain McCaw have been brilliantly absorbed by a squad apparently united in their rejection of the idea of defeat.

Yet it still has to be recognised that in the tidal wave of logic insisting on not just an All Black win but a big one there remains a morsel of flotsam.

It answers to the name intrigue and concerns the French, the bloody-minded, incorrigible and, for more predictable souls, the taunting French. They have been discordant, often abysmal on the field, throughout this tournament but they retain the mystique of survivors of unfathomable depths. They also have in No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy a man of astonishing will.

When one of their finest old players, Jean Prat, who was awarded the Legion d'honneur, inspired an unlikely victory with a dropped goal in the final moments of a match one of his compatriots sniffed "It is a small miracle for a man born in Lourdes".

All of New Zealand is praying that tomorrow Our Lady of Lourdes takes the day off. It is the reasonable demand of a great and deserving sports nation – and, you have to believe, anyone else who still puts a high value on the right result.


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