Growing up in New Zealand in the 70’s and early 80’s the embroidered silver fern on the black jersey filled me with pride. It wasn’t a brand or trademark as these things are known now and didn’t need the words “All Blacks” written underneath. It needed no explanation as everyone knew that it meant “the best a rugby player can be”. That the All Blacks were the best team in the world was never questioned.
I used to draw the fern on my school exercise books and folders and got so excited about test matches that I would wake up in a sweat after dreaming that we had “lost” before the game had actually been played. Dynamic and skillful Wellington No 8 Murray Mexted was my favorite player.
I have never owned an All Black jersey, I always felt that you had to earn it, but this week some 25 years after I left school I am about to buy one for the first time. I won’t be pulling it on over my head though.
I live in Argentina now and have done so for the last eight years. I made a bet with my hairdresser and lost. We bet that whoever’s team finished highest in the world cup would receive a replica jersey from the other. I offered odds of 2-1, after all the Pumas were in the group of death, Pablo being a gentleman refused the odds but the bet was made.
Yesterday I met up with 20 or so other New Zealanders living in Buenos Aires to watch the quarter final against France. It started well but just when a match winning lead seemed to have been established it all fell apart. Our most experienced players were subbed off and Carter and Evans injured and the French got a sniff. With the best backline in the world our tactic was the mind and body numbing pick and go. We lost the lead, managed to retake it before finally losing it again. With ten minutes to go we made the final push, another pick and go, nobody called for a drop goal attempt when we were close to the line. With time almost up we had a shot from 50 metres that was well off and that was that. The spring sunshine tried hard but couldn’t thaw my numbness as I stumbled home.
Today the Pumas had a tough game but with fierce pride and courage hung on grimly as Scotland threw everything at them. The bar erupted as the fulltime whistle went and Argentina were in the semi finals for the first time. Yesterday the All Blacks had failed to make the last four for the first time.
Anton Oliver said "I didn't want to take my jersey off. No one wants to finish their career like this”. Me and four million other New Zealanders had hoped he would have the finish to his career that this great All Black deserved. Sadly it wasn’t to be and shortly after Anton took off his grey All Black jersey I will be sitting in Pablo’s barber’s chair after handing over the black jersey.
As Pablo cuts my greying hair and it falls to the ground I will think back to my school days and remember what that silver fern once stood for. I’m still as proud of the All Blacks as I was then, its just that now and in spite off our world ranking the question “Who is the best in the world?” cannot be answered truthfully with “All Blacks”