Upon the tyranny of the adductor longus tendon
Colin Slade is a watched man. A full house at Wellington Stadium is watching him with a nervousness that comes from seeing your star player replaced by a guy who had to fight for a spot. For the most part they are silent; like 32,000 Grizz Wylies with a grim look and a note pad.
It's an incredible contrast to all the previous games here, which have been loud and boisterous. Fans from the opposing teams chanting constantly at each other with passion; here the noise rises only for events on the field. Cheers and groans. That is until the Mexican wave starts.
Slade's first touch of the ball is a groan moment. His kick is charged down by Canada and the resulting ruck ends in a very kickable penalty. Colin Slade is the reason Canada is leading at the beginning of this game. It does not build confidence.
The crowd remains quiet for most of the game. The noise of a New Zealand crowd is like the ocean; rising and falling depending on who has the ball and how far they run with it. They sing along to the songs they know and even when the music cuts off for the restart of play they continue:
"I don't kno-oooOOOOW, why does love, do this to me? I don't know. I don't know."
I suppose the more poetic might see this as a song about the New Zealand rugby fan and Dan Carter.
I miss you/You know that/But when I see you sometimes/I'm cut up and I'm broken/There am I asking you how you are
New Zealand will end up winning by a predictably impressive and hollow margin.
The interaction between the All Blacks after the game is interesting. Sonny Bill, who had a good game, is the only player to double back on the handshakes to congratulate his own team. He also has a complicated fist bump with Zac Guildford. Henry pats a stern looking Jerome Kaino on the ribs and says something causing the man of the match to break into a huge grin.
Everyone seems calm and happy. No worried faces here. They've moved on. Somewhere, Dan Carter watches this and feels ill. He'll later call a press conference and tell us all to "get over it", secretly worried that we already have.
All you hear is… HORNS IN THE CITY
Tonga wins! Tonga wins!
It was a joke at the start of the game. Then as momentum built the crowd began to realize that France weren't staging a typical comeback. None of their passes were going anywhere, no one could break the Tongan line, the kicks were off-target and the handling at crucial times was failing them. On top of that Tonga was completely disrupting French ball at the rucks. Good God Tonga is going to win this!
Head down and storming at the French line again and again. Every French tackle was made in desperation not through defensive strategy. The only thing stopping Tonga from a blow-out was their own inability to hold the ball at crucial times and an overzealous touch judge making calls from the far side of the field.
I had sent an email at half time, with Tonga having scored their try, to my French friend in Toulouse. I knew she'd be watching and joked about the state of her heart. I feel bad about that now.
In the stands you couldn't stop the Tongan fans. They were waving flags and cheering and whooping and did not stop making noise. They made a ¾ full stadium feel like a sell-out. The French fans sat in disbelief and in some cases disgust at their own team. This is not to say they were angry, it was more that they were sad that their team would play so badly (I personally blame the uniforms).
Word from the inside the French team is that there is no cohesion between the players, and some outright hatred in some cases. Marc Lievremont has come out and said that this team is like the French football team at last year's FIFA World Cup. As an aside some in the media booth (not me) on Sunday were angry that this press conference had been "cancelled" only for it to un-cancelled without notification.
But back to the Caketin which was awash in red and white. The Tongan fans were going crazy. In the booth the French journalists had their heads in their hands. The Tongan team thanking their fans with a Sipi Tau (possibly the best of the Pacific pre-game challenges) all the way around the stadium. This is their biggest triumph.
In town there are hundreds of happy Tongans cheering and flag waving and car-horn honking and being as loud as they can. And they were as loud as the horns that were blaring continuously in Newtown from midday. There are almost three times as many French fans; they aren't making much noise (other than cheering for the Scots in the late game).
But eventually the Tongan fervor dries up and Courtenay Place's usual late night demographic takes over. The French fans continue on into the early morning. If you can win anything, at least win the after party.
When I heard that Deadspin, a website I have spoken of before, was sending a couple of reporters here for the Cup I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk to them about rugby reporting in the US.
Turns out they were doing the cup on a shoestring budget with Deadspin contributing "beer money" and an audience. So I helped them out, bought them beer, let them crash at my place and did my bit to help ease that old ANZUS rift.
Apologies for the sudden ending to this, but my camera ran out of memory.
We have loved you all
We've had some great times haven't we? Some close games. Some blow outs. We've welcomed some of the happiest people and sadly waved as they have played their games and left. Some with tears, some with smiles, most with both.
At the end of the Japan-Canada game I made my way through the stands and helped a few people to take group photos. One in particular struck me. Two Japanese men: one in a kimono, the other in a Japanese rugby jersey. As I raised the camera I realised the man in the rugby jersey was crying, a lot. And why not? The crowd where he was sitting was unbelievably loud and cheering for a team that was playing its last game in the tournament. Its last chance to get a win. And all they got, after their best performance of the Cup, was a draw. I took their photo, patted him on the shoulder and walked on.
The press conference was delayed as the Japanese team were given their medals and walked slowly around the stands. When they arrived, coach John Kirwan and Japanese captain Takashi Kikutani were smiling at least, before the Japanese press launched an attack on Kirwan's selection policy and coaching choices. After the third question on this topic the humble Kikutani, politely asked if he could speak, and in one of those moments where the quietest man in the room held everyone's attention he defended JK, leaving the press silent. After the questions the two stood and hugged.
It's been slightly heartbreaking watching the teams leave; the Italians and Scots weeping after leaving everything on the field. The Italian captain wanting to lament with his teammates but not being able to leave the clutches of the post-game interview. Mahonri Schwalger, with his soft tone, wanting to apologise to the Samoan fans after a spirited performance against South Africa. And then Marius Tincu, with a smile and a shrug, as his team bow out.
These were our own teams for a time. We adopted the Lelos and the Brave Blossoms. The Eagles and ʻIkale Tahi had homes and communities all over the country. We cheered when they won and patted them on the back when they lost. We painted our faces with their colours and took some of our own traditions and changed them for these new teams.
And their fans came here too. Some reveling in a trip to the other side of the world, others amazed at being in "the home of rugby" (sorry England). Check the photos above for some interesting stories I found in the crowds (and bars).
After the All Blacks played Canada we bumped into a group of Canucks in a local beer bar. One of them was wearing a brighly coloured, seemingly official, Canadian rugby jersey, so I had to ask. Turns out he was a former international who had played against the All Blacks in 1980 (something which current Canadian players were jealous of). As they left they gave me a little pin to remember them by (turns out the Canadian government gives these away free to giveaway when you're overseas, what a great idea!)
But this guy is my favourite:
Troy had flown in from Tampa, which is where he broke his nose playing rugby. The large number of flights between there and New Zealand meant that his nose never healed properly and was still bleeding. After watching a few games he was off to Australia and some Pacific islands before heading back home... which is when he'll finally get the nose fixed.
It's enough to make you want the pool matches to continue. We loved having you all, please stay longer.
Thanks to Samsung for the Galaxy Tab 10.1 which I use to report from the games and to Telecom for the SIM card inside it, which actually has reception at the Caktein.
Thanks also to Honda for giving me that flash hybrid which meant I could get to Napier and back.