By Mark Freemon
21 October 2011 (Hunua, New Zealand)
Oh what a feeling
Ten minutes after our semi-final had ended, after New Zealand had torn the heart from the Wallaby team, I took my Labrador out for his roam in the long grass. The night sky was thick with stars and the Southern Cross was just visible above the western horizon. Within the hour, the constellation that adorns New Zealand’s flag would dive, dagger like, into the Tasman Sea. Like some nocturnal Valkyrie, the cross headed for Oz and as the short hours there approached, prepared to vex the early night’s slumber of Australia’s citizens. For me, the constellation’s departure seemed altogether fitting. Another sign to decipher...
I secretly hoped a shooting star might arrive and focus my thoughts or steel my nerves for the week ahead. The French now stood between us and the coveted Cup. They represented a confusing set of variables to ponder.
Suddenly, I was startled as I could hear farming stock movements, hundreds of metres away amid darkened paddock land. Below, the city sparkled like Vegas. The Sky Tower, donning a night cap of five flashing red lights, hovered above the urban backdrop like some massive Christmas tree. All seemed perfectly right in our World.
Out West iron plant cress operators had just tipped a bowl of slag from the ladles of Glenbrook Steel Mill and the horizon glowed orange for a few, brief seconds. As the reddish tint faded and darkness slowly returned, I jokingly said to the dog. “Look Harry, they’re partying out in Waiuku and from the looks of it, they’re burning some unfortunate Australians.”
Settled weather, What settled weather
At a thousand feet we do not get many still nights along the Hunua ridgelines. The region’s general calling card includes lashings of wind and rain. Settled spells are a blessing and infrequent during the transition between winter and spring. Chaotic weather assaulted Auckland during the semi-final week. I was concerned that weather may contribute to a poor performance by the All Blacks. We needed a firm track and dry ball to imprint our run and gun style on a game of such national importance. Wet and windy conditions wouldn’t be ideal and could leverage a 50/50 scenario for Australia.
The media, and the mountain of statistics they spouted, had the nation in a confused state. Those who occupied the fence rail looked to the TAB odds for guidance. The dyed-in-black types were gun shy and couldn’t identify a distinct advantage, reserved judgement and sprinkled their comments with “you can never count out the Aussies”, “it’s too close to call at this stage” or “the All Blacks should win but...”.
Sure, we’ve endured it all before and should be expert on how to deflect and ignore. But we’re suckers for high drama @ world cup time and the tournament’s final stages, have, at times, been tantalizingly close too heart attack material!
In office blocks, on building sites and across factory floors, there were men and women who could not concentrate on their work, solve basic problems or communicate with staff. Some were completely felled. They called in sick and spent the entire week in PJ’s hovering over empty spiral tablets and writing, over and over in BLACK crayon, a series of throw away numbers: 95, 99, 03 and 07. There was a big Kangaroo in the corner of the nation’s lounge and nobody wanted to look at it!
But let’s face it, even though we had convincingly won every single game, our nerves were shot by week four of the tournament and the nation, except the librarian types on coast watch duty, was in a desperate state. First of all, our underwear model first five – Captain Kirk of our Enterprise - had exploded his groin like some bizarre crotch grenade. Reliable McCaw looked somewhat unreliable as, for a fair few games, someone other than “the great one” roamed the sidelines in the black number 7.
The team’s now driven by a bearded Pirate, a skateboarding first-five and a secret weapon seemingly over occupied with perfecting secret handshakes and pre match grooming.
I’m thinking, “we MUST win this damn thing” and prior to semi, certain folks started to lose the faith in a big way. Bad luck and bad mojo had sceptics pursuing the shifting winds of modern journalism.
No one would engage me in conversation about the game in the week build up to the historic semi final. Maybe an excessive had blunted the conversational wit of my co-workers. Possibly the uncomfortable feelings resulted from an Australian habit of playing the last minute spoiler and their never say die attitude in all things sporting. I don’t care if it’s a simple seed spitting contest or an Olympic final. If New Zealand and Australia are involved, it’s serious, deadly serious. So a win at all costs effort was on the cards for this the biggest game of my 13 years history with this great nation.
Even though they are not a rugby nation, the Australians love a sporting contest and their press spoke of a nation intrigued and transfixed by the upcoming battle with the All Blacks. The contest, on so many levels, spoke – “Watch me!”
Luckily, God smiled upon us, ushered in a settled spell that overlapped Saturday and Sunday and allowed us all some warmth and merriment prior to this HUGE encounter with Australia. As a way to keep things in perspective, prior to Sunday’s second semi-final, the family and I dug a 1200mm by 5.4 metre strawberry bed, attended to various garden chores and counted the moments till kick-off. I figured if things turned nasty later, the strawberry bed would double as a bunker or firing pit. But let’s NOT go there folks!!! And so, at that moment, we were a nation of kids on a symbolic night before Christmas.
Oh my God what a game!!!
It may have been during the televised coin toss, or after watching the haka that I realized this one was going to be a game to remember. The All Black focus was obvious throughout. One man’s steely stare is powerful, but 22 sets of focus dark pupils in overwhelming.
I cannot imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of an All Black haka. They are powerful affairs and though some say they’re overdone and over stylized, we absolutely love them. It’s that ONE thing that really makes us ALL stop (including those librarian types), breath slowly and watch the spell unfold.
The All Blacks, and especially Weepu and Umaga before him, expend and magnify enough energy to power a Christchurch suburb.
The Wallabies, arm in arm like some grand Partridge family embrace, looked lonely in the centre of the park and a bit like a line-up of rubber duckys. The sitting duck types!
Judging from the paltry sprinkling of yellow specks dotted across the darkened stands, we had only allowed one hundred and fifty Australia supporters through the turn styles. Sydney’s a long way from Tokoroa Quade, help’s a long way from Eden Park...
It happened quickly and few commented on one aspect of the pre game build up. Weepu had just lead the nation through a focused, workmanlike Haka. The Wallabies, as is some teams’ habit, stood motionless and attempted to stare down the ABs in the following interval. While the Wallabies stood there staring, the All Blacks simply turned, went about their business and prepared to receive a kick-off. This muted reaction left the opposition staring into space and negated the attempt to get into the AB’s heads.
None of us, including the Wallabies, realized that our guys had already entered a mental state that housed nothing but necessary objectives and a short list of required actions. Four years and countless hours allowed this group and their mentors an opportunity to refine all elements necessary to achieve total rugby dominance. And here’s what happened...
It wasn’t apparent during the opening few phases of play but, by the three or four minute mark of this test, you could sense the All Black machine had more gears at their disposal and the hapless were staring down a hiding to nowhere.
Our boys were driving to another dimension and swept into the Wallabies like a tight band of Tasmanian Devils. We looked polished, certain and rock solid. Mind blowing stuff.
Cory Jane continually levitated, like a sure fisted Spiderman above the Eden Park turf, and absorbed a steady barrage of Australian high ball. A stern, “take no prisoners” approach ruled the breakdown. Bodies flew on obtuse angles and lay scattered, bar room brawl style, across Eden Park’s lush lawn. It was war out there and lesser humans would crumble and break under such sustained assaults. And eventually the Wallabies, the lesser humans on the day, did.
This game was rammed to the rafters with the best sporting attributes. What we witnessed was tactical, and polished, and brutal, and intense, and precise, and full of raw emotion and calculated ferocity. That sublime eighty minutes continued to promote an extraordinary group above all who have come before and all who will follow. The bar’s been set on that one game. That display will continue to propel the mystique and mana of an extended All Black family that stretches back to the 1884 “Originals”.
My dad, Joe Freemon, used to remind me in my early days of watching the NFL, to watch one guy for a series of plays and try to learn what his core job required. This allowed me to piece together the puzzle that encompassed that broad canvas that was football. That’s how I’ve learned rugby and I immediately watched the forwards as they tore around the track in a tight wedge and, like a group of SAS, surgically bore down on all targets who attempted to either delay the ball’s transfer or affect a turnover at each breakdown.
Pocock, because of his hound dog nature, was a repeated receiver of “the business” meted out by this, no-nonsense, collective. On the night, Thorn was leading caveman and Pocock’s “pop-eye” chest his target. Actually they weren’t fussy, any yellow jersey that presented itself was fair game and all were repeatedly upended through a series of never ending collisions. Pocock’s hard stubborn, kept attempting to do his job, but by halftime he’d been completely negated from play as it’s difficult to scavenge while pin to the turf.
From my comfortable brown chair I almost imagined I heard a series of muted “hut, hut, hut, hut – BAM!” proceeding each foray into the Wallaby defensive line.
There was an enormous amount of bloodletting across the pitch. We got as much as we gave in this department. At one point a merry go round of bloodied faces forced a continuous stream of alternate players to leave the field for a bit of stitching or blood wiping. Obviously, lots of “how’s your mother” occurred all over the park and locker room sewing machines and swabbing units feverishly worked to mend bloodied gladiators and get them back into a frenetic contest.
We’d adopted a stoic “smash them bro” approach, started to get on top and while the yellow jerseys held on desperately, their sinking ship headed towards “launch the lifeboats” stage. At home we frantically made cups of tea @ halftime and awaited the second Armageddon.
It was messy, in your face, snot-and-all type combat and gave the game an appearance of scenes broadcast from a slaughterhouse floor. At times a parental discretion tag was required.
However, I remind all viewers that no animals – save small cuddly kangaroo like creatures - were harmed during the game, all participants have been handsomely paid and each merrily accepts all risks associated with the described melee!!
I feared that halftime might blunt our campaign of consistent, flawless, tactical, free flowing rugby - but it did not. The munchies tables prevailed (more on this later) and helped us to continue, well into the second interval, our march towards the World Cup final!!
So we live to fight another week. Luckily for us, Auckland’s tree lined lanes and the nation’s constabulary, my cheeks still hurt from a prolonged period of smiling that started from Quade Cooper’s blunder during the semi final’s opening kick-off! Enter our next dragon, the French!
So for now, all is right in the universe for this group of focussed warriors and their nation of love struck followers. Let’s get off the beaches lads and push on to Paris!! The nation needs you! Roll on! Roll on, yea band o’ merry men.
Brad Thorn, you da man!
Roll on Sunday!!!!
More from Mark Freemon in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup
Gilbert has released a new line of rugby cleats. The Gilbert Virtuo 8S is part of the exciting new product. Check it out.
The entire All Blacks apparel line has been updated for 2013/14. Check out the New Zealand All Blacks polo.
The Nike Tiempo is a solid rugby cleat and one of few styles still made from full-grain natural leather.
The Gilbert Blitz 8S rugby cleat is a great cleat at a great price of $69.99. Get a new pair of cleats today.
A cool looking all black rugby cleat with the high performance adidas is known for. Get in the Gear!
Wear the crest of the British and Irish Lions on your t-shirt. A great look for the summer.
The All Blacks Performance t-shirt is black with hints of blue from the training jersey. Very Cool.
The New Zealand All Blacks training jersey for 2013/14. Get in the Gear!
The USA Rugby Pro Alternate rugby jersey is perfect for any fan of the Eagles. Get yours to wear during the summer Test matches.
The NEW All Blacks 2013/14 jersey has arrived at World Rugby Shop. Dare to wear the colors of the All Blacks.