1999 World Cup semi-final loss, a defining Kiwi moment

I've been reading a few books about the All Blacks recently what with the Lions tour and all that - and I didn't get them out of the library, Liz got for me, now isn't that a wonderful partner for you. So, reading these books and it's brought to the fore my theory of the 1999 semi-final loss to France and its effect on New Zealand.

Just before I plough on, if you think this is about rugby and are sick and tired of me rattling on about "that bloody game" then be assured it's not. Rugby was the catalyst but most certainly not the whole of the reason underlying my theory.

As some of you may be aware I have long espoused the theory that on Sunday 31st October, 1999 and during the following months New Zealanders took a large step out of 'adolescence' and towards adulthood.

By 'New Zealanders' I am referring to the collective, the masses, the singly psyche a country gives out. The same feeling we have that America is a young bully, England is an old stuck in the mud fart and Australia is a loud bragger.

This does not mean that all Americans, English or Australians exhibit these traits, far from it.

It's that impression we get when we hear 'about' these countries. It's the collective nod-of-understanding when we hear a President use a phrase such as, '... with us or against us." and America is reported as being the 'global bully'.

It's that shorthand stereotype we use about peoples we don't really know.

So, I believe the psyche of New Zealand changed because of that game and the subsequent emotional response. Well, perhaps not because but most certainly it was a catalyst.

Prior to the game New Zealanders took the All Blacks as their own, personal ambassadors to the world. That one 'thing' that could be held up and praised as "the best". Defeats, of course, came and went but that deep down belief that the All Blacks were simply the best proved they were special at something - rugby.

Where did it come from - probably those amazing Originals and Invincible tours in the early 20th century. New Zealanders (who saw themselves as an county of Britain, just a long boat trip away) were able to show the home country a thing or two. They had learnt a different game, had a different 'amateur' philosophy and were able to stand tall back home.

They were many other notable events that also put New Zealand on the map - or more importantly caused the world eye to notice it. Hillary up Everest, Crowded House, Americas Cup win(s), going nuclear free, other sporting achievements but none of these were on-going. Only the All Blacks triumphed year in year out.

A lot of Kiwi's needed the All Blacks to win. Thoughts would have been along the lines of, "This is how the world see's us, and therefore how they ultimately see me when I introduce myself as coming from New Zealand."

But why only one thing to define a New Zealand? Why not many of the fine attributes Kiwi's have? The short answer - it's a young country with a small population.

The longer answer. The world that New Zealand associates with is mainly Western (America, UK, Australia, Europe) and they only see New Zealand as having existed since 1840 which is not long at all (Maori living here still doesn't count). In such a short time and the speeding up of the world with the advent of global communications there wasn't a lot to build on and rugby success came along.

For instance - the UK has a whole history of literature, music, theatre, military campaigns, sport and politics to which a Brit can look for self definition. If you're into music (like me) then it's that side of Britain I look for 'success'.

A country's wealth of material comes with both time (a lot of time) or people (a lot of people). New Zealand will probably never have the multi-multi-millions of Europe, USA or Britain (I hope not) but it is gaining more and more time to build on.

So, the semi-final. What was so special about that game?
Well, nothing really from a rugby perspective - France ambushed (in the best possible sense) the All Blacks, probably played a bit dirty and had a cracking game plan. Games are won, games are lost.

But this game was being played in the World Cup. In front of the world - the rugby playing world that is.

If the All Blacks lose, we lose.
And they lost.

The country went into shock. As the All Blacks website says:

Even if they right those mistakes on in the third-place match against South Africa on Thursday, it won't be remotely enough to erase the despair that must be felt throughout the land of the long white cloud

The coach, John Hart, was vilified. He was a demon. He was the devil.
The team was shite but didn't come in for the amount of vitriol as John Hart. The respect for the All Black jersey was probably a bit too much.

And the hate poured out from the media ("A Hart Break for the All Blacks") and the public (driven on by the media) for weeks.

Sports Radio was pointing the guys towards counsellors. This was serious and it had got very very nasty.

Finally, John Hart resigned.

It was over. When the team landed in Auckland it wasn't that bad despite the team being very apprehensive - some, of course, had already moved on many years ago.
(don't forget I talk about the wider New Zealand personality and not individuals)

Life can get back to normal. Kiwi's could get over it and maybe even move on.

The All Blacks, under John Mitchell, regained a few cups and were, to use the phrase of the time, "on a journey" towards the 2003 World Cup held in Australia.

And then, in Sydney, the same happened. Semi-final loss to Australia. This at the end of the AP match report:

The possibility exists of a reaction even more bitter than in 1999 because the current All Blacks coach John Mitchell, his captain Reuben Thorne are already far from popular with many New Zealand fans.

But it didn't happen. There was no hate mail. There were no death threats.
Of course, the media did their job and dissected every decision of every squad member at every moment of the game. Everyone talked about it for a week but, somehow, it was different.

It wasn't so personal. It was about a rugby team that had, unfortunately, been beaten. And whilst we all had our theories as to why, were keen to make sure lessons were learnt and were sad for a national side it wasn't nasty.

As I say, it wasn't personal. If the All Blacks lose then ... well, they lose. We will be sad, we will be angry but we won't be losers ourselves. Kiwi's stopped "hitching their horse to someone else's cart", a phrase I heard Polly on the radio (91ZM) use about Lord Of The Rings.

The country had grown up, or changed, or morphed ... I dunno what exactly but it was different.
Whilst rugby is still a major social event in NZ life wasn't just the All Blacks.
It is just a game (despite some of my mates thinking otherwise). Kiwis are bigger and better than just one single facet of life.

That's what I think has happened but I don't really know why.
  • Why was it at that time?

  • Why did that game define the boundary between "they lose, we lose" and "they lose, they lose"?

I'm sure it wasn't a click of a switch, more of a fade from one to the other.

How's this for an analogy?
Possibly much like hair. No-one really knows how different the hair is day to day but one day we look up and think, "Hmm, hair is long, needs a cut". Maybe it was a windy day that day and it epy blowing in our eyes and brought it to our notice. The wind was the game, the hair the psyche.


What I do know is that, as Kiwis we're not not just the All Blacks. We are the All Blacks AND Lord Of The Rings/Peter Jackson AND Flight Of The Conchords AND World Of Wearable Art AND Olympics successes AND Nuclear Free AND Clean/Green AND The Datsuns AND ... [you fill in the rest]

The country is also benefitting from soem of the cultural changes that occurred in the 1970's and 1980's. I believe one that is having a profound yet very quiet effect is the teaching of Maori at school. New Zealand is sloooowly embrcing the two Treaty cultures .... be a few more generations before it's all totally cool.

Finally, it has to be pointed out that I'm not a Kiwi (yet). I've lived in Wellington since 1996 with 2 years in Sydney (where I was when that game was lost). I have changed a lot over these past few years and I'm sure there's an amount of projection going on. But others have also noticed the change. Kiwi's born and that have lived here all their lives have talked to me about it.

And there you have it, my theory in all its glory. It's only a theory and as such is there to be argued with, expanded upon or refuted.

Go for it.


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