I had tears in my eyes on Saturday morning.
It was a privilege and a joy to watch the New Zealand Black Ferns defeat the Red Roses of England in a World Cup Final for the ages. As a match it had everything. Skill. Speed. Power. Heart. And tries. Glorious, wonderful, thrilling tries.
The administrators of women’s rugby had hoped to provide the world an epic match to showcase the global event and they got it. Following the grip then European Championships held over England in the summer when the Lionesses stunned Germany, other sports hoped to surf the wave of a massively increasing interest in all elite participants. This time it was Rugby Union’s chance to turn it on.
For 30 matches, England had gone unbeaten. Benefiting from long overdue investment and a professional competition attracting live and televised audiences. They arrived in New Zealand, for many the place where rugby has been perfected over the past century, with huge expectation and by the day of the final, the expectation was very much likely to be delivered.
By the final whistle, players clad it black and white, were physically and emotionally spent. All that was left was tears. Of joy and of despair. The largely partisan crowd cheered new heroes (much as at Wembley in June), entertained by the deeds before them. Applause and appreciation.
The feelings at the end of a game are obvious. Joy and sadness. But what about during the match? The end is the end. The culmination of months, years of hard work and sacrifice. Of course it will all spill over. However, in the heat of battle, how should one be feeling?
The Roses were impressive. Physically dominant, technically adept, highly drilled. The Ferns whilst capable, were a team that had been convincingly beaten by England only one year ago. The weight of expectation from a nation notwithstanding, the script prepared for the match had an England win at its climax.
So, what do you do when you are outgunned? You find the thing that makes you go further, fight harder, and be competitive. For the Black Ferns, it was a reminder from the genius coach that is Wayne Smith, to enjoy themselves. And so they did, they played the game with a joy and a freedom that infused their game as girls and it became a difference maker in the biggest game of their lives. At one maul, both New Zealand locks managed to wrap up an England ball carrier and in spite of the technical skill required to achieve the manoeuvre, what struck me was the beaming smiles upon both of their faces. Not wrought with tension, but alive with joy. Similarly, shortly after setting up what proved to be the match winning try, Stacy Fluhler limped from the field with time still on the clock. Her match was over, ended in injury, but her face belied any feelings of upset she may have had at missing the final moments on the pitch.
They played the game like they loved it, not like it was something to be endured. The sheer joy of playing a game that millions of children all over the world love to play.
The difference in the end, was joy.
There are many things much more important than rugby. After the award of the Player of the Match between New Zealand and Wales last week, All Black legend Ardie Savea, thanked the fans and acknowledged the exceptional privilege he felt for being allowed to entertain them.
Look out for the name Ruby Tui as a nominee for BBC International Sports Personality of the Year. She stole the show in Rio when she won a gold medal in 7s, and she stole our hearts again with her tears, tears I shared and when she grabbed the microphone, proceeded to lead the cheering masses in Tutira mai nga iwi, a song we all learned at school in New Zealand.
The Red Roses will fly home, beginning to recover from the disappointment of losing, but no doubt preparing for their next chance at Twickenham in 2025. Perhaps if they enjoy themselves in the process, they will get the prize that escaped them on Saturday.
The beaming smiles of Tui and Fluhler, along with the other Black Ferns are money in the bank for World Rugby. Proof positive that women’s rugby is popular (read commercially viable) just as has been proven in football and cricket. Investment will come now there are heroes to follow. You cannot even buy a copy of Ruby’s book anymore. Sold out. Everywhere.
For many of us, we can get obsessed about the result. A deal done. An order signed. A box ticked. Who wants that? To tick a box, is to fulfil someone else’s requirements. How about we try to remind ourselves of the joy we get in doing what we love to do? You might win, you might not, but it will be a much better experience.
Love the game you play.
PS – I am fully aware the red card probably changed the course of the game.