By Liam Napier in Paris
In a room full of their peers, on the eve of the most important occasion of their careers, the All Blacks banished stereotypes to deliver a series of heartfelt speeches to set the tone for their World Cup final week.
Rugby is often categorised by its brutal collision-based warfare. There will be no shortage of those in Paris this weekend. Yet as the All Blacks prepare to collide with the Springboks in a repeat of the 1995 World Cup final, they packed away the boots, balls and any form of stoicism to harness emotional sentiments that sparked tears from some players.
Prior to the World Cup final at least, the All Blacks maintain the theme of nine senior figures and the wider management team’s looming departures will not be a hot topic.
On Monday evening local time, though, the All Blacks gathered and several senior players – some of whom are preparing for their final tests this weekend – laid bare their soulful passion for the team to leave misty eyes and inspiration prevalent.
Centurions Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and 90-test hooker Dane Coles are among those preparing for their final bow with the All Blacks.
“We definitely haven’t talked about farewells. We’ve talked about being the best we can,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said. “We had quite a nice night last night where some of our experienced leaders spoke around what it’s been to be an All Black, some of their previous experiences of World Cups as well as some of the younger boys as well. That’s been a special part of our week. It was a nice time last night - anyone who has played 100 tests, you’ve got a couple of stories, don’t you, so it was good to listen to those boys.”
New Zealand Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata has been called on to share his experiences with the All Blacks before previous World Cup success.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster has this year invited legendary World Cup winners Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino and Conrad Smith into camp at different stages.
On this occasion, though, it seems straight from the heart inspiration will come from within. This All Blacks team has all the motivation it needs.
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In a typically controlled, sterile press conference setting All Blacks loose forward Dalton Papali’i offered a rare human insight into the stories that will fuel their World Cup final week.
“It was quite special to hear some of the things certain players said from the heart. You think you know someone but once they open up and be vulnerable in front of the team it was quite special to hear,” Papali’i said. “I’m not going to repeat anything because it’s more of an in-team thing but it was truly something special when you hear those boys open up.”
It’s no secret this All Blacks team has endured adversity in the form of historic lows, assistant coaching changes and criticism in their uncharted path to the World Cup final.
All Blacks lock Samuel Whitelock during a training session at the Stade du Parc, in Rueil-Malmaison ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. Photo / AP
Never before has an All Blacks team been so widely written off in a fluctuating four-year cycle.
While who spoke and what exactly was said remains in house for now, the theme of staying tight to emerge out the other side of those struggles for this shot at glory clearly struck a chord within the camp.
“You know those leaders have been through a lot in their careers – the highs and the lows – both off the field and on the field,” Papali’i said. “It makes you want to play this game for them because of what they’ve done and been through.
“There were a few tears and I think that’s awesome to see players showing vulnerability and opening up about how much this tour and this sort of game means.
“Someone said this is probably one of the most important games in All Blacks history because this All Blacks team went through a hard path to get here with media, friends, family criticising us and we stuck together. We weren’t even said to be in the final and now look at us – we’re here.
“Different players take it differently. Some of the older players were probably hit a little bit harder. It was good to see a bit of the emotion and the want from them. Seeing that gives all the other players an extra two, three, per cent to think we’re going to the well and we’re going to give it our all.”
In a sporting context emotion carries any individual or team so far. In an occasion such as this, though, drawing on those two, three, per cent can be the difference between a missed or made try-saving tackle.
All Blacks v South Africa, World Cup final
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Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games.
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