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19 November 2008 – (courtesy of www.TheCupisComingHome.com)
The BBC said Joe Rokocoko’s late, late try “spared the All Blacks’ blushes” against Munster last night.
Sorry, no it didn’t. There would have been no blushes in defeat because there would have been no embarrassment in losing to the inspired, electrified, relentless, passionate and ultimately magnificent team of Munster men on this unforgettable autumn night at the legendary Thomond Park.
This was one of those sporting occasions which transcends a game and makes bolder statements about humanity. That sounds perhaps a tad pretentious – but it is not. This match was that special. As a Kiwi – probably one of only 500 in the 26,000 strong crowd – I was honoured to be present at such an event and deeply moved by the respect the Munster crowd showed for the All Blacks, for my country and for the game of rugby.
Take heed all ye around the world who care about this beautiful game. When ‘Smokin’ Joe’ scored that heartbreaking, game-breaking try in the 87th minute, Stephen Donald’s resultant conversion attempt, if successful, would have put the All Blacks out of reach of defeat by an even later drop goal or penalty. It was the most crucial of kicks. In almost any other stadium in the world, at least outside Ireland, the booing from the home supporters would have been loud, venomous and prolonged.
Yet as Donald lined up his kick the only sound in the eerily still, and yet monumentally flattened crowd was the occasional “Shhhhh” as spectators reminded their compatriots of their great yet unwritten sporting code. The kick missed – perhaps it was the silence that undid Donald on that and several other occasions during the evening (to be fair to the crowd at Croke Park last weekend, they did exactly the same when Dan Carter was kicking. Again, he missed some sitters. Maybe a new weapon, the Sound of Silence, has been discovered that can finally stop the mighty Blacks).
During one of Donald’s earlier, and also crucial, kicks, the silence was broken only by the barking of a dog from outside the stadium. That’s right – you could hear a dog barking in a backstreet of Limerick, such was the silence inside Thomond Park. You almost expected the crowd to collectively look in the direction of the dog, raise their fingers to their lips, and whisper “Shhhhh” in the direction of the hapless hound.
Every word, every gesture of the All Blacks Haka was met with similar silence, immense appreciation and total respect. How different that is from the braying you will hear from the Barbour jacket brigade two weeks hence at Twickenham, who will no doubt successfully drown out the Haka with their symphony of boorish booing, thus denying themselves and all other spectators of one of the great moments in world sport.
Remember too that a goodly proportion of the folks of Munster had taken up occupation in the pubs of Limerick throughout the afternoon in the build-up to the 7.30 kick-off. Some might have been four sheets and quite a few more pints of Guinness to the wind but that didn’t have the slightest impact on the levels of respect they showed and which, quite frankly, put any rugby crowd in New Zealand to shame.
So here’s a plea to all fellow Kiwis. Let’s learn from the dignity and grace of the Irish. When Ireland (especially, but also any other international side) play our teams back home, let’s banish the booing too. Let’s take up the alternative cry of “Shhhhh” and show that at the rugby table of manners, the Irish are not the only diners.
And another thing. If any Kiwis reading this bump into a Munster man or woman in 2011 during the next Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, invite them back into your home. Tell them you were moved by the respect they showed your nation, your culture, your rugby team. Tell them that the Munster class of 2008 – a supposedly ‘second string’ team – was every bit as heroic as their proud predecessors of 1978.
Tell them that Munster lost only on the scoreboard but won everywhere that it mattered most – in the hearts, minds and affections of all those privileged enough to be present, including crazily patriotic Kiwis like me who (almost impossibly) would not have been downcast at losing to such a side.
Tell them how you heard about those Munster men who hit rucks like there was no tomorrow (and for anyone standing in their way there might not have been). Tell them how their own brand of passion somehow inspired several of the younger All Blacks – notably the magnificent young athlete that is number 8 Liam Messam – to reach deep, deep inside themselves to a place they perhaps did not recognise and play like men possessed in those final, pulsating 20 minutes, when bodies were strewn like corpses across the glorious battlefield that was Thomond Park.
Tell them that you heard about the ‘Munster Four’ – Howlett, Tupoki, Manning and Mafi – and how they, backed to a man by the rest of the team, laid down their own heroic Haka challenge to the Blacks.
And tell them so much more. Tell them it from me. Tell them how the crowd to a man and a woman stood and applauded the All Blacks after the game, despite having just swallowed the bitter, bitter pill of unexpected, agonising, death knell defeat. Tell them how ruddied-looking Munster men came up and shook my hand after the game and said “Well done, you deserved it”, when in truth perhaps we didn’t.
Tell them most of all, that the name of Munster, even in defeat, is synonymous not only with the great rugby victory of 1978 but also the magnificence of the players and the crowd who graced the rebuilt Thomond Park some three decades later.