|Thorn said he wanted to share a hard-fought victory in the scrum with 60,000 fans at Eden Park [Reuters]|
This Rugby World Cup may have finally got its moment – one that will live in the memories of those who were there, and that will be replayed on television for the next four years.
It is that moment that says: “This is rugby. This is special. If you don’t love this sport, you should.”
Four years ago, that moment belonged to Sebastian Chabal, France’s “caveman” in the second row, who stared down the All Blacks’ haka with beard-shaking intensity before knocking New Zealand out in the quarter-finals.
This time, the moment was led by another second row. And this time, it was an All Black, one who is a game away from erasing the pain of that defeat in 2007.
It came with 10 minutes left of New Zealand’s semi-final against Australia at Eden Park on Sunday, when the Wallabies had the put-in at the scrum but were mauled by the All Blacks pack to concede a penalty.
At that moment, Brad Thorn and his fellow forwards broke away to pump their fists in the air and hug each other. No try scored, no penalty kicked just yet, but a huge victory in one of the harshest and most physically demanding battlegrounds of any sport. And one that signalled to the crowd that the All Blacks were marching into the World Cup final, 24 years after they last won the trophy.
“Maybe you have to be a lock (second row) to understand,” 58-cap veteran Thorn said at a press conference in Auckland on Monday as he talked about the pack’s spontaneous celebration after the scrum.
“I was excited last night. We pushed them off their ball. It doesn’t just happen – there’s a lot going on in there.
“It’s like doing a max squat (in the gym, Thorn can do 205kg). It’s not much fun doing a squat, and if you do it you feel pumped up.
“Do you think anyone’s going to care who won the semi-final in 2011? No one’s going to care. It’s what happens this weekend”
Brad Thorn, New Zealand
“For a tight five to do that, going up against an international pack, in the 70th minute
of a Test match, with the opportunity to go to a World Cup final. It was a pretty cool time, in my opinion.”
Special it was. And the penalty that came from it allowed Piri Weepu to give New Zealand a winning 20-6 lead, putting them in the final against France.
“You relax, soak it in and enjoy it, but tomorrow it’s back to business,” said Thorn.
“Do you think anyone’s going to care who won the semi-final in 2011? No one’s going to care. It’s what happens this weekend.”
This weekend will either be a dream or nightmare for the proudest rugby nation on the planet.
In the 20 years that have passed since New Zealand handed the Webb Ellis Cup over to the winners of the 1991 tournament, Australia, the talk has been that pressure from the fans has contributed to the All Blacks “choking” on the biggest stage.
Thorn said that, for him, the opposite would be the case at Eden Park on Sunday, October 23.
|Henry said he would not underestimate France after a painful exit in 2007 [GALLO/GETTY]|
“The New Zealand public have been huge for us, from Stewart Island (off the south coast) to the top of the North Island,” said Thorn.
“People say it’s pressure, but for me it’s a lift.”
A better opportunity to win the World Cup is unlikely to come for a long time, with France having battled to the final despite poor performances.
Speaking alongside Thorn in Auckland on Monday, coach Graham Henry said the squad had analysed bitter defeats of the past.
“At the last tournament in 2007, our approach was ‘one game at a time’,” said Henry, who chose to re-apply for his job after that loss four years ago.
“This time we have dissected the Rugby World Cup and its history and looked at why the All Blacks haven’t won for 24 years. It’s been helpful.
“The French team? Well they can be the best team in the world on their day. In 2007 we beat the French by something like 50 points before the World Cup but we went on to get beaten in the quarter-final.
“That’s the reality, and it caused some people a lot of pain. We don’t underestimate the ability of the French.”
A comprehensive victory over Australia has left the country buoyant in the week leading up to the final, in which Thorn, 36, will bid an emotional goodbye to the shirt as the oldest All Black ever to play at a Rugby World Cup.
He said his salute to the crowd after the 70th-minute scrum took him back to his days as a supporter, watching New Zealand from afar after moving to Australia at the age of eight.
“For me, growing up in Australia, I felt the same – cheering on the All Blacks,” he said.
“I really remember being a fan. So in that moment I put my fist up to the crowd to share that moment with them.
“Whatever happens there’s a bit of sadness for me because this is my last game in an All Blacks jersey. But it’s really nice out there, and a nice place for me to be.”