James Lawton: Wonderful New Zealand offer a treat that trumps tribal loyalties
Carter and McCaw are not so much stars as enduring sources of wonderment
In the sports year of so many superlatives, all those rich pickings stretching from the feast of Spanish football in Kiev, through the Olympic stadium so eager to gorge on every spectacular morsel provided by Usain Bolt to the Ryder Cup picnic on that beautiful course at Medinah, there might be some danger of indigestion in these dog days of 2012.
There is a need, indeed, for a rather spectacular after-dinner drink but who better to serve it than the All Blacks at Twickenham?
It is, if England's splendidly combative and ambitious young Owen Farrell will forgive us, a prospect that frankly strips normal levels of patriotism right down to the bone.
Some sports figures transcend every border. They make a joke of the worst tendencies of tribalism. They separate you from lifetime longings on behalf of your team. They make you step back and catch your breath in admiration.
That is the meaning of New Zealand's appearance today and most especially in the presence of arguably two of the best rugby players the world has ever seen. Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw are not so much the stars of the reigning world champions as the most enduring sources of wonderment.
The captain, and the ravaging flanker, McCaw makes his 116th appearance on the international stage. Carter wins his 94th cap, has the game's record points haul at 1,381 and, despite some brave and bullish talk, represents for his young opposite number Farrell not so much the challenge of his life but a visitation from another planet.
Farrell has already shown plenty of composure in the big theatre, most notably in last winter's Six Nations in which he helped his team emerge from the black hole of disgrace at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, but today he, along with all his team-mates, have to deal with a different dimension.
It is occupied by a team who down the years have swatted every demon – and most spectacularly when they won the World Cup 13 months ago before their own people under the immense pressure created by a stream of unfathomable failure since their first success in the opening tournament in 1987. That pressure rose inexorably on the way to an almost unbearably tense final with France, and when the All Blacks found deliverance there was nothing less than an explosion of relief.
When Carter was cast out of the tournament with injury and McCaw was doubtful for the final the atmosphere of foreboding was extraordinary. Earlier, before the quarter-final with Argentina, they also had their version of England's "Dwarfgate" fiasco when the brilliant backs Cory Jane and Israel Dagg had to be dragged from a bar by their team-mate Piri Weepu.
However, there was a huge difference. While England talked, shortly before packing their bags for home, of the need for relaxation and a "little bit of banter", Jane and Dagg were told forcibly enough they had not only betrayed the team but the nation. Naturally, they spent the next two weeks training and playing a considerable way out of their skins.
The intensity against Australia in the semi-final was extraordinary. The Wallabies were driven against the wall from the first exchanges and when the last victory came so edgily over the French it was still possible to say that if the wrong team won the final the right one won the tournament.
It was right because the All Blacks had reminded us of something their rugby had always represented outside of the eccentricities of the World Cup. They reminded us of the importance of discipline and consistent levels of performance.
Shorn of the brilliance of Carter, they were bound together ever more closely. Threatened by the absence of McCaw, they insisted they would get the job done. Victor Vito, a male model and a ferocious shadow of McCaw who will be on the bench at Twickenham today, declared, "Over the last few days we have all faced up to the fact that after losing Danny Carter, we might now be missing Richie but if you want to become champions of the world you have to fight through that. Listen, mate, I'm ready to put my hand up."
It is an All Black obligation that was perhaps best captured by the mighty second rower Brad Thorn, who at 36 made the World Cup final his final statement. "The great thing about playing for this team," he said, "is that you can have good games and bad ones but the way you go into them never changes. You put on this shirt and you know what is expected. The very least is that you give everything." In his case it was 6ft 5in and 18st and it was applied quite relentlessly.
Thirteen months on, there is a chasm between New Zealand and England that seems as wide as ever and if someone like Owen Farrell can fill at least a little of that space there is hardly any limit to the credit he is due.
He is, after all, playing possibly the greatest team his sport has ever known. It is his ordeal, our privilege to be around to see it.
Ponting embodied the fighting heart of his nation's sport
It has been a long and agonising process, but a few days before his 38th birthday Ricky Ponting, the most obdurate "Punter", has announced his farewell Test appearance against South Africa – a collision which could return Australia to the top of the rankings.
It would be gloriously appropriate if it happened because, if it has been a long downhill journey for the ferocious little competitor from Tasmania, and one which contains the permanent scarring of Ashes defeat as captain on Aussie soil, no one has better represented the fighting heart of his nation's sport.
In the prime of his career, his pulls and hooks sounded like rifle shots, and behind the smoke and thunder there was the underpinning of a superb technique which gained him 41 Test centuries and a top score of 257, at an average at the highest level of 52.21.
Only Sachin Tendulkar (51) and Jacques Kallis (44) scored more Test hundreds and it is hardly a surprise that former England captain Michael Vaughan, his conqueror in the Ashes series of 2005, rates him the best batsman he ever played against.
Punter was a wild youth but he grew into one of the greatest fighters his game has seen. When he comes in from his last battle against the fading light, the most serious form of a wondrous game will be immeasurably poorer.
How Chelsea could have benefited from Redknapp's bulldog spirit
There is a strong suspicion here that Queen's Park Rangers are about to celebrate their first Premier League victory against Aston Villa – and that it will be the latest evidence of the vital quality of Harry Redknapp.
It is one that many shrewd football judges will say might have been equally well deployed at Chelsea, where Rafa Benitez is predictably tackling the challenge with much emphasis on the coaching prowess he seeks to display so relentlessly on the touchline. Whether this is quite what is most needed at this point by the confused squad who so recently won the Champions League title, the FA Cup and were just four points off the lead in the Premier League is a debate which might well grow in intensity.
Already, though, Redknapp's supreme knack has been displayed most promisingly in QPR's fighting draw at Sunderland.
It is the capacity to make a football team feel a whole lot better about itself. His sacking by Spurs remains one of the larger football outrages.
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