New Zealanders are celebrating their first Rugby World Cup victory in almost a quarter century, lifting the mood of a nation scarred in the past year by natural disasters and a mining tragedy.
Fans in their thousands crowded downtown Auckland today, waving flags and chanting “All Blacks, All Blacks” as the national team and management paraded through the main roads on utility vehicles and trucks. Last night’s 8-7 victory over France at Eden Park gave New Zealand its second win in the sport’s premier tournament. After hoisting the trophy in 1987, the All Blacks fell short in the next five tournaments, even while dominating international rivals between World Cups.
The victory concludes 45 days of matches in 11 cities across New Zealand, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in Christchurch. That temblor was followed by a fatal mining disaster, a Feb. 22 quake that killed 181 and the grounding of a ship this month that caused the nation’s worst environmental accident.
“It’s been a very tough 12 months for New Zealand with the earthquakes and the Pike River mine disaster,” Prime Minister John Key told reporters at the end of the parade. “This was really something that galvanised the country and brought everyone together. We’re rugby mad at the best of times. It was a bit of a fairytale ending.”
‘Angst Is Over’
New Zealand observes the Labour Day national public holiday today, leaving much of the country free to revel. Victory parades are also scheduled for Christchurch and Wellington this week.
“Angst is over,” said the website of the New Zealand Herald, the biggest daily newspaper based in Auckland, the nation’s largest city. “Parc de Triomphe” trumpeted the Dominion Post, the Wellington-based newspaper that serves the nation’s capital and center of government.
“This is for everyone in New Zealand,” All Blacks captain Richie McCaw told the crowd at the victory parade in Auckland.
“New Zealand hasn’t won since 1987, and it has been this enduring thing in the very back of some people’s minds, perhaps creating some small sense of self doubt,” Steve Jackson, professor of sport sociology at Otago University in Dunedin, said in an interview. “This might just help take a little bit of stress and pressure off -- albeit only temporarily.”
While no one died in the first Christchurch quake on Sept. 4, 2010, the February temblor killed scores when it struck at lunchtime, leaving parts of the central business district and heritage buildings in ruins, and thousands of homes condemned. Aftershocks have delayed the city’s reconstruction, which the central bank estimates may cost at least NZ$20 billion ($16 billion).
Almost three months after the 2010 quake, the nation mourned the deaths of 29 miners killed by an explosion in an underground mine near the South Island town of Greymouth. The country watched for five days, hoping for a repeat of a Chilean mine rescue the previous month, until a second explosion removed any hope. The bodies are still to be recovered.
“It has been 12 months of tough stuff for New Zealanders,” Martin Snedden, chief executive officer of Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd. said on the day of the Sept. 9 opening match. “Everyone in New Zealand is ready to take a bit of a break from all that stuff and have a party.”
The respite was short lived. Days before the Cup quarterfinals started, a Greek-owned container ship ran aground near Tauranga, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland. The vessel spilled as much as 350 metric tons of oil, blackening the region’s coastline and killing hundreds of birds.
On Sept. 30, New Zealand lost its top credit grades at Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, the first Asia-Pacific nation in a decade to have its local-currency debt cut from AAA. Concerns about another global financial crisis added strain to government finances already stretched by the quakes.
For a nation recognized globally as the home of “The Lord of the Rings” films and for adventurers such as Mount Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary, New Zealand owes much of its identity abroad to rugby. A century ago, the young nation introduced itself to the world through the success of its national All Blacks teams, especially their wins in Great Britain, where the game began.
“Rugby generally is a part of what New Zealand is,” said Ron Palenski, chief executive of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. “Playing rugby is one of the few things that we’ve been able to do, historically, better than anyone else.”
Boost to Economy
New Zealand’s central bank predicted a boost from the Rugby World Cup totaling NZ$700 million, according to an Aug. 18 report.
Prime Minister Key has aligned himself with the All Blacks in his first term of government, as his National Party prepares for a Nov. 26 general election. Key stood alongside the team during the singing of national anthems at the opening ceremony on Sept. 9 and has autographed jerseys hanging on the wall of his parliamentary office.
“The government has done a great deal to exploit this Rugby World Cup, and to be associated with the success of the All Blacks,” said Ray Miller, associate professor of political studies at Auckland University. “That won’t be lost on the voting public.”
Key, whose government on Oct. 25 will release its latest fiscal update, is preferred as prime minister by 59 percent of voters polled by Colmar Brunton in late September and his National Party had 56 percent support.
While World Cup organizers exceeded their target ticket sales of NZ$268.5 million on Oct. 20, the tournament will still post a budgeted loss of around NZ$39 million, to be met by the government. The sales show how strongly New Zealanders have embraced the tournament, Rugby New Zealand 2011 said.
“I’ve never seen the country like this in my life,” All Blacks lock Ali Williams said on Oct. 19. “I was there in ’95 when we had the America’s Cup and that was pretty phenomenal, but this is another world.”
Another New Zealander who’s relieved the All Blacks didn’t lose is Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard. He cited his “expert team of forecasters” in predicting in a Jan. 28 speech that the local squad would win the finals. The only thing Bollard got wrong was his pick for the runner-up, which he predicted would be Australia.
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