World Cup success leaves a rugby land at peace

 

LETTER FROM AUCKLAND:Former player Grant Fox says it’s a ‘privilege’ to be back at the forefront of New Zealand rugby – this time as a selector

LIFE HAS pretty much returned to normal since the World Cup and the mad celebrations which followed New Zealand’s victory. Although the NZRU lost money, their eventual deficit was nothing like the shortfall expected, while the benefits for the country and especially the capital has been most evident in the city’s improved infrastructure, additional cafes and restaurants, albeit pricier, while the redeveloped Eden Park is still a nightmare to reach.

All told, an estimated €315 million (NZ$512 million net) was spent on additional expenditure for Auckland between 2006 and 2012 as a result of hosting the World Cup. But the benefits are mostly intangible, simply because New Zealand just feels so much better about itself as a country, having rolled up their collective sleeves and put on a superb show, on and off the pitch, for an estimated 135,000 visitors.

For this, the huge volunteer force which contributed to the RWC 2011 effort were the real heroes according to Lisa Kingi, who was chief executive of the RWC’s hospitality. Most of those officially involved in the four-year organisational network have moved on, including the calmest of heads at the tiller, RWC 2011 CEO Martin Sneddon.

The South African-born Kingi is now CEO of the New Zealand Rugby Foundation charity, the equivalent of the IRFU’s Charitable Trust, which is financially supporting 94 players who have been paralysed playing rugby after another three casualties last year. “That was a particularly bad year,” said Kingi.

Yesterday, the Carbine Club of New Zealand hosted a lunch at the picaresque Auckland Racing Club, bedecked in glorious sunshine, at which All Blacks legend Grant Fox and Alan Quinlan, currently here as a commentator for Sky Sports, were guest speakers.

Fox scored 645 points in just 46 Tests from 1985 to 1993 – back in the days when 46 caps were a lot of caps – and aside from his famed goalkicking (he pioneered the technique of leaning the ball forward) and kicking game, he was also a superb passer.

He has always been chided about his return of just one try, and indeed before his introduction yesterday Fox was reminded of his overruled attempt against Ireland in 1989 (due to a prior foot in touch by a team-mate). “Move on, move on,” he responded with a weary smile.

Fox was also a key man in the inaugural World Cup-winning side when New Zealand first hosted the tournament. An Aucklander himself, Fox reflects on the World Cup which bridged that 24-year gap eight months on and says: “It was a remarkable success. There were a lot of people who doubted we could run a World Cup and particularly fill the stadiums up, and I was a doubter in that too, I gotta admit. But I was pleasantly surprised.

“I think we had a great organisation, great people and it’s a rugby country, so I think a lot of people wanted to travel to a rugby country to see a Rugby World Cup, and we did put on a great show.”

“The bonus was that we won it,” added Fox, who admits it wouldn’t have been such a success otherwise. “We’re a country from a rugby point of view that has found peace. Even going into this Irish series, and that is absolutely deadly serious, the sort of comment around the place is a bit more relaxed that it normally is because we’ve got that monkey off our backs. It’s not complacency. That’s the wrong word. It’s just that we’ve found some peace.”

The tangible benefit for rugby has been evident in a lift for their Super 15 franchises, both in performances and interest, and for the country’s tourism. “Hopefully a lot of people came here and had a great experience and enjoyed the hospitality, and went home again and said: ‘gee, we would like to go back’. They’ve also told their friends and families.

“Geographically we are not easy to get to, we’re a sort of pimple down the back end of the world, and that will hopefully filter through in these challenging times. Life is tough for a lot of people and the World Cup was a respite from that. A little bit of feel good around a lot of gloom in the world.”

To his own immense surprise, Fox has since moved from being a pundit with Sky to being an All Blacks selector alongside Steve Hansen and Ian Foster. With his boys now 25 and 22, and Ryan Fox now a professional golfer, he had just wanted to relax with his wife and enjoy their beach house two hours from Auckland. “All of a sudden I had a phone call from Steve Hansen, and it’s changed my life. Again. But it’s a privilege to be involved.”

The selection triumvirate are overseeing quite a changeover in the All Blacks squad but the New Zealand rugby conveyor belt – through their all-conquering under-20s and Super Rugby – is, as ever, chugging along.

“We’ve got a very good talent pool,” he agrees, though says in the longer-term they are thin at hooker, are a little short on international class locks (though have “high hopes” for Brodie Retallick) and lack a little depth in midfield outside those already there.

But now he is one of the three official selectors in a land with four million of them, and there will be days they oversee losses. “Picking All Blacks’ teams is not a popularity contest. You get a lot of help from four million people and that’s also one of our strengths. Everyone has a point of view and is passionate about it, and we don’t always agree. But that’s fine. Debate is fine.

“That’s also part of the pressure valve that goes onto the All Blacks and they are acutely aware of that. But the internal pressure is greater than the pressure the public put on them and that keeps the guys fully aware of the responsibilities when they put on the All Blacks’ jersey. Whether that goes back to the Invincibles of 1924 but maybe it goes back to 1905, I don’t know, but that legacy is still felt today.”

And they’ve found peace.

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