On embracing a fantastic rivalry

There’s something New Zealanders need to do as a rugby nation. We need to celebrate our rivalry with France, like we do with South Africa and Australia. They more than deserve it.

When the All Blacks won the 1987 tournament against France I was 8 years young.  All I knew was that the All Blacks won, and that from the way my father talked about it, so we should have.

My dad is 65. That means his version of Richie McCaw, is Colin Meads, who never played in or won a RWC. Didn’t need to. Dad grew up in Parakao, a tiny Northland location in the Mangakahia valley, west of Whangarei. So his other heroes are players with names like Peter Jones, Joe Morgan and Sid Going. Those guys never won a world title either. They, like Meads, went on tours and played against touring teams, events that foster relationships between teams and fans, which breeds mutual respect and kinship.

My brother and I grew up near Whangamata, unable to watch TV until SKY became available, because of the volcanic hills. We did get to watch a fair bit of rugby on TV though, because of dad’s love for the game. Looking back there were some fortuitously timed trips to see relatives. Well played, dad. And thanks.

I was made aware as soon as I could start to understand the game that some monsters existed in a place called South Africa, but they weren’t allowed to play because of something called Apartheid. I learned of a time that dad and his brothers would listen on the radio in my grandfather’s cowshed, as the smaller but more skilled players we sent to this mysterious place took on a bunch of giants with weird names.

At least we still had the Australians, in their canary yellow and mould green shorts, to provide a rivalry.

We also had another great generation of players to watch. My rugby hero was Number 8 Zinzan Brooke, to me still the greatest rugby all-rounder to ever lace boots. A forward too, importantly.

My rugby world for the most part was pretty awesome, the All Blacks won the 1987 World Cup, which I don’t really remember. Sure, they lost to the Aussies at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, which I only remember because my uncle swore about it. Other than that they pretty much won a lot.

And then in 1994 the French visited and beat the All Blacks on home turf. Twice. I was 15 and rugby was pretty high on my list of stuff that mattered, and I was confused. What was going on? Who were these tricky stepping moustache wearing dudes that didn’t care about how many times we’d thrashed everyone else?

Oddly, my father wasn’t that shocked. He was grumpy, sure. Same with my grandfather on my mum’s side, and most of my uncles. But they didn’t “hate” the French for it (Still don’t – apart from the eye-gouging thing. I’m pretty sure even Gandhi would have struggled to be okay with that feral act). That’s not to say they weren’t a bit miserable for a few days.

Weeks.

Okay for a while…

Amongst what was said by many of the rugby people I knew, there was a common and fairly simple theme: “That’s the French, they do that every now and then… They’re just tricky buggers.”

New Zealand’s great rivalry with South Africa was more than saluted in 1995 when both teams made the final. I can’t remember the result of that game but France came in third.

One behind New Zealand.

So I don’t know when it was that certain All Blacks coaches stopped being aware that France can make a defensive strategy resemble a single damp square of one-ply toilet paper. I’m not even sure that they did stop, maybe they just failed to focus their All Blacks side for a team that is notorious for winning against the odds. Or, maybe our somewhat unrecognised rivals outplayed us.

A quick internet search will tell you that they were the first of the Northern Hemisphere teams to tour New Zealand, in 1966. That was before the All Blacks had toured France too.

Les Bleus had first won against us in France in 1954, 48 years after the first game between our nations. They had to wait until 1972 to do it again, and until 1979 to get a first win in New Zealand. Then they won the series in 1994, and flattened us at the RWC 1999 Semi-Final.

That’s actually far less inconsistent than it looks, if you notice the low number of test matches played back then…

Anyway, back to World Cup stuff. Just like most of New Zealand, along with Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, I didn’t see it coming. On the 7th of October, 2007, some guy named Wayne Barnes (he doesn’t even have a middle name. What kind of Englishman doesn’t have middle name?) kitted up and went about ignoring a large proportion of the laws of rugby and physics. He also ruined my November, December, and a large portion of my 2008.

I was living in Britain, where Englishmen jeered at New Zealanders as if the English themselves had won something. How’s the karma, chaps?

The French fans (at least where I was) were almost apologetic, as if they knew they wouldn’t get up for the next two games.

When the All Blacks finally ended the Great Rugby World Cup Drought (1991-2011), French fans didn’t jump on cars or go nuts in the crowd around Auckland. They lost by one point, kicked by fifth choice 1st 5/8th Stephen bloody Donald. They’ve also been to more Rugby World Cup Finals than any other team without winning the damn thing, and they still don’t lose their merde.

Often when I meet a Springbok fan we have a good yarn about the rugby, and it’s respectful. We have history, we’ll say, or there’s tradition there.

When encountering an Australian it’s unlikely they’ll be keen for union chat, but if they do it’ll be good fun, before the New Zealander must make a small acknowledgement of their occasional successful results.

So today, on the eve of the next chapter between the All Blacks of New Zealand and France’s Les Bleus, I’m making a small request: Enough of letting the media fan the flames of fear and mistrust. Let’s embrace our fantastic rivalry. What’s more, let’s push for a full (provincial teams included) tour.

One each way, every three years, before World Cups, so we get a damn good look at them.

Allez les Noirs.

Contributed by Sam

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