There are turbulent times ahead as we enter the five stages of hysteria leading up to the Rugby World Cup final, writes Finlay Macdonald.
It began immediately after Australia’s mildly convincing win over Argentina in the second semi-final, with a classic bit of clickbait: “Five reasons to fear the Wallabies”. The article was really just a short list of the team’s stronger points, by the same writer who only a few days earlier had written a piece headlined “Wallabies weaknesses exposed …” after their unconvincing win over Scotland. By Tuesday superstition had entered the frame, and the rolling maul of finals week hyperbole was under way.
There will be plenty more as we enter the five stages of hysteria leading up to the game itself. After the interminable pool round and the almost foregone conclusion stage (otherwise known as the quarter-finals), the well of instant rugby wisdom is all but dry. Mad think-pieces (“ABs must win the World Cup for the good of the game”), willfully manufactured crises (“Richie might miss out on final”) and sentimental gap-fillers (“Sonny Bill consoles broken Springbok”) have used up about every move in the sports-talk playbook. What comes next will test the patience of even grown men in replica black jerseys.
Aside from the usual trolling about why the All Blacks are vulnerable or how the Wallabies could undo them, there will be a gradual focus away from the teams towards the fans. In New Zealand’s case, “fan” is generally taken as a synonym for “person”, meaning we will read and hear a lot about how “we” are feeling leading up to the big game.
At some point during the coming week there will be a hubristic boilover in one or more of the newspapers. “ABs just too good says former coach” … “Captain Courageous ready for the final showdown” … that sort of thing. John Key – jock-sniffer-in-chief at this stage of the electoral cycle – will make another friendly wager with Malcolm Turnbull. It will be bigger news here than in Australia.
The coverage, as it always does, will begin to resemble war reporting: “our boys” will be “ready for action”, it will be a “do or die” encounter with “an old foe”, and “we” will be encouraged to send our support. This will no doubt involve nothing more than a hashtag, but it’s the thought that counts. Willie Apiata may well be wheeled out for another subliminal nod to the enduring links between rugby and killing in our nation’s proud history.
The coming game will by now have taken on metaphorical significance. It will be about more than just a result, it will reveal something about our hopes and aspirations as a people. Solemn editorials will ponder the role of rugby in bringing us together as a people. The words “national” and “identity” will be reunited once again.
While most sane people will continue to treat the whole thing for what it is – an enormous bit of fun – certain segments of the media will confuse its own febrile lack of perspective with something more general, and begin to offer unsolicited advice about coping with stress and anxiety. Tame psychologists will be wheeled out to explain the risks of over-identification with sports stars, at the same time as acknowledging the mental health benefits of sharing a common goal as a community. The weird fact that New Zealand’s national colour is also the colour of mourning will go unremarked.
And after all that, the whistle for kick-off will come as a blessed relief. Whatever happens after that, we’ll finally have left the future behind – if only for 80 minutes.