WELLINGTON, October 25 – “I need a rum and coke — I don’t normally do that at five o’clock in the morning,” New Zealand fan Jack Strang said after the All Blacks’ nail-biting World Cup semi-final win over South Africa.
Strang was among the hordes of Kiwis who streamed into pubs across the country to see the match at Twickenham, which kicked off at 4:00am on Sunday in New Zealand.
Like many, he was thankful licensing laws have been relaxed to allow early-morning liquor sales during the tournament, as the All Blacks shredded supporters’ nerves with a narrow 20-18 victory.
“That was far more stressful than I would have liked,” said Sidney Peneho, another patron at the D4 Irish bar in central Wellington.
“But you know it’s always going to be tough against the Springboks. We got there in the end.”
New Zealand media praised the team’s veterans, sometimes derided as a “Dad’s Army” before the tournament began, for helping the All Blacks maintain composure at crunch moments.
Radio New Zealand said the old stagers had repaid coach Steve Hansen’s belief in them, particularly skipper Richie McCaw and star pivot Dan Carter.
But the New Zealand Herald raised fears McCaw could be cited and miss the final if he was deemed to have deliberately elbowed Springbok flanker Francois Louw in the head.
Such an outcome would not only be a huge blow to the All Blacks in the decider but would also bring McCaw’s glittering Test career to an anti-climactic end.
– ‘We’re still the best’ –
The mood in the bar was buoyant ahead of the match, with confidence boosted by last week’s record-breaking 62-13 quarter-final demolition of France.
“I think we’ll win,” Malcolm Davidson told AFP just before kick off.
“There’s always some nervousness, you never know what will happen in a knockout game, but I think we’re the better team.”
Doubts were emerging as the All Blacks trailed 7-12 at half-time, with a small knot of Springbok supporters making their presence felt amid a sea of black.
“We’ve had a couple of nasty looks but we don’t care, we’re going to win. The game will speak for itself,” South African Roedeen Atkinson told AFP.
But New Zealand slowly wrested control after the break and their Wellington fans greeted every point with a deafening roar.
The intensity lifted as the reigning champions grimly defended a two-point lead in the final 10 minutes, with fans’ faith tested as their team flirted with disaster.
“Soak up the clock… stop kicking it… WHY would you DO that?” one man yelled at the big screen, head in hands, during the dying minutes.
After the final whistle all was forgiven in a flurry of whoops and high fives, with thoughts turning to next week’s final against either Australia or Argentina.
Strang said New Zealand needed to learn from their close call against South Africa to produce a more composed performance and lower penalty count.
“Our ill discipline kept the Springboks in the game. In a World Cup final you can’t really afford to make any mistakes, no matter who you’re playing,” he said.
Davidson believed Hansen’s men remained on track to become the first team to claim back-to-back titles.
“Without wanting to sound arrogant, I still think we’re the best team there,” he said.