BY SEAN FITZPATRICK
Laureus Academy Member and legendary All Blacks captain
Laureus at the Rugby World Cup: Sport helps to heal a nation as New Zealand kick off tournament against Tonga
Laureus Academy Member Sean Fitzpatrick writes for the Laureus blog following New Zealand’s opening World Cup game win against Tonga…
A 41-10 win for the All Blacks against Tonga was a good start. I had felt before the game a victory by around 30 points would be just about right in an opening match.
The All Blacks have really been building up to this for four long years since they lost to France in Cardiff in the last World Cup – and you could sense just what it meant to the country to be off and running at last.
The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing and outside it as well. It was ‘blackout day’ in New Zealand with everyone wearing black. In Auckland they staged ‘party central’ down on the waterfront for people who couldn’t get into the match. They expected around 12,000 and over 50,000 turned up.
The country has really become a rugby stadium of four million people all desperate for the All Blacks to do well.
It has been a difficult time for New Zealand trying to get over the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River mining disaster and having the Rugby World Cup here has helped. Another example of the healing power of sport.
I was a bit surprised that Tonga were not more physical. I certainly expected them to be, but perhaps they were a bit overawed by the occasion and the opposition. The All Blacks are also a big side and they can mix it if necessary. The rival hakas were performed in a gentlemanly way and that tone seemed to continue through the match.
I guess critics may say the All Blacks were not so dominant for periods of the second half which led up to the Tonga try, but overall I don’t think they have too many concerns. By then the match had been won and the All Blacks went on to score again themselves later.
The big plus for me was the form of three guys who weren’t even certain to play. I thought coach Graham Henry was very shrewd in playing Israel Dagg, Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams. They are not automatic first-choicers, but they had the chance in this match to show what they could do.
I think their performances showed that they all need to be on the field somewhere in the matches to come. If not in the starting 15, then certainly in the 22. Sonny Bill Williams particularly can be a match-changer, coming on to make an explosive impact.
It may give Graham Henry difficult selection choices, but it’s a nice problem to have. Dagg especially looked good at full-back, but if you were playing the World Cup final tomorrow, I would still go with Mils Miliaina in the starting line-up.
I think Graham and captain Richie McCaw will be pleased with this start and also pleased to be leaving Auckland and going to Hamilton, out of the spotlight, for the next match against Japan – and then, of course, to prepare for the big match against France on September 24 which they must win to top their pool.
Looking ahead there are some crucial games this weekend. Tomorrow England, whose form has been unpredictable, need to start well against Argentina, who can always produced a surprise. And on Sunday the defending champions South Africa play Wales.
South Africa have started looking more like their old selves after beating the All Blacks in the Tri-Nations. They need to keep that going, but I rather fancy Wales to have a good World Cup. We will find out a lot more about both teams on Sunday!
As I board the plane at London Heathrow Airport I could hear whispers from behind the curtains. The cabin crew had heard there were some famous sportsmen and women on the flight! Arriving back in Abu Dhabi the sense of excitement was not just in the air, all the talk is of Monday’s awards and who else would be visiting the capital of the UAE.
I checked into the hotel last night just in time to catch one of the craziest games of rugby I have ever seen, France versus Scotland in the RBS Six Nations, so first thing on my schedule today is to seek out some of the game’s biggest names to get their view (Sean Fitzpatrick, Hugo Porta and Michael Lynagh among others). And that’s the wonderful thing about the awards – you’re only ever a few feet away from some of sports biggest names and they’re more than willing to talk to you about the thing that binds us all – the power of sport, not just to entertain us, but also to be a force for good. I can’t wait for the cabin crew to find out Morgan Freeman is on board!
Monday’s stage started with a visit to Vodafone HQ in Newbury. I was joined by fellow Laureus World Sports Academy members Sebastian Coe, Sean Fitzpatrick and (of course!) Hugo Porta, as well as Vodafone Foundation advisor Matthew Pinsent. Vodafone have provided their full backing to my campaign and I was more than happy to have a Q&A session at their offices.
However, at the back of my mind I was always thinking forward to what would be the longest stage of the journey – 75 miles from Newbury to Brent over countless gruelling hills. Read more
This Wednesday (July 8), I’m setting off on a week’s cycle from Manchester to London. The aim of the ride is to highlight the ways in which sport can help to tackle youth crime. On the way, I’ll be visiting projects which use sport to deal with these issues.
The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation has commissioned a special report on the role which sport can play in fighting gang violence and gun and knife crime. I urge you to read this report as it makes very interesting reading. A gang is actually not that different from a sports team, both provide you with a sense of belonging, status and excitement. But, while sport also helps you develop control over your emotions and learn to respect certain boundaries, being in a gang can be destructive. Read more