Somewhere between leaving LAX on Sept. 3rd and arriving in Auckland 17 hours later on Sept. 5th, September 4th disappeared from my life and the Kiwis welcomed me to what many think will be the 6 week greatest party of their lives hopefully culminating with the All Blacks lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy on October 23rd. Along the streets of Auckland IRB World Cup banners stream from every street light.. Immigration and customs (as long as you weren’t bringing anything that even vaguely resembled plant or animal matter) were delighted to see us as soon as we said we are here for the World Cup.
My wife, Carolyn, and I arrived on the cusp of the incoming hordes. The good feeling and warm welcome was palpable. Tonga had arrived at Auckland a few hours before and traffic around the airport stopped for 3 hours as Tongan supporters welcomed their heroes. All was smiles and bliss until the question of if the All Blacks would choke again arose. We shared our hotel shuttle from the airport with a French couple. When I asked if France would once again prove to be the All Blacks’ nemesis, the shuttle driver’s eyes cut me a look that would have opened the door and pushed me out if they could.
During my layover in Sydney I skimmed some of the Southern Hemisphere’s World Cup special edition magazines. The consensus seemed to be there are 4 teams in with a chance: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England. A few articles held to the theme that it would not be the talent or size or speed or endurance or game strategy that would elevate one of these sides above the others on Oct. 23rd, but the nebulous quality of team spirit which would be the decider. The Aussies have put together a young team of players coming on form and playing very well together. The English have a mixture of very experienced players and young players with great potential. The All Blacks have a side that have dominated on the world rugby stage for several years now. The Springbok selection is largely from their 2007 World Cup winning side. They were young at the time, so not ancient (meaning over 30 in rugby years) for this World Cup. If it is the camaraderie and support they get from each other as the time, matches, and media grind away at them over the next 6 weeks, which selected 30 will prove the collective x-factor attitude to rise above the rest?
Interestingly the Springboks won the 2007 World Cup without ever facing either Australia or New Zealand. The only other team to win a World Cup without having to face a Tri-Nation adversary were the All Blacks in 1987. This year’s draw makes it almost impossible for this to happen if things go as most pundits and bookies imagine. But the All Blacks have choked twice against France in previous World Cups. This year they could potentially have to face France twice, once in the pool stage and then possibly in the finals. If France wins the pool stage match against the All Blacks, New Zealand could make it through the knock-out rounds to the final without playing Australia or South Africa if Australia loses their quarterfinal knock-out match to their probable foe Wales. We’re not mentioning the word choke here, though. Nobody wants to ruin the party – do they?