Piri Weepu spoke for New Zealand when, immediately after the All Blacks' nail-biting World Cup victory, he exclaimed: "I think everyone can sleep easy now and not worry so much." So many had been the years since New Zealand first won the Webb Ellis Cup in 1987 and so harrowing had been the experience that it seemed a weight had been lifted off the nation's shoulders. At the same time, a burden was also removed from those who will judge the Halberg Awards for 2011. The names that will be read out on February 9 would have been far different had an injury-hit All Blacks not ground out their single-point win over France at Eden Park.
Yet Richie McCaw's team was not alone in ridding the country of an embarrassing statistic. This has been the year of the drought-breaker. Even cricket, the subject of regular disappointment for its followers, got in on the act against our biggest rival. New Zealand's failure to win on Australian soil dated back even further than the All Blacks' World Cup misery, to 1985.
This month at Hobart, however, a youthful Black
Caps team prevailed in a thrilling test, albeit against a weakened Australian side, to tie a series one-all. The display by such tyro talents as swing bowler Doug Bracewell and the calm authority exhibited by new captain Ross Taylor boded well. Yet perhaps an even more notable drought was broken by one of the country's less heralded sports, basketball. For a combined 34 seasons, New Zealand rugby league, soccer and basketball teams have toiled in Australian club competitions. The disappointments have been many, and few guessed that winning would be so hard. This year, however, the Breakers broke through to claim the Australian National Basketball League title. By year's end, they looked on course to repeat.
The Warriors have yet to break their drought in the National Rugby League competition. They are, however, getting ever closer. This year, they reached the final for the second time and even though they again fell short, the presence of a dominant youth team and a new and charismatic coach, Brian McClennan, suggested their time was near. There was also fresh hope for the Wellington Phoenix which, following the exit of Terry Serepisos, was put on a far firmer financial footing. This season has come too soon, but next year it should be challenging for the title of the top soccer club in Australia and New Zealand.
The main focus in 2012 will, however, be the London Olympics. Many of the country's best medal chances have been nominated for major Halberg awards based on their success in international competition. With the exception of world champion shot putter Valerie Adams, in the sportswoman of the year category, they will lose out to the All Blacks. Next year will be their time.
As many as three rowing crews have been nominated as the team of the year, along with Mahe Drysdale as sportsman of the year. That bears testimony to the continued excellence of the sport on the world stage, and the high hopes for the rowers at the Olympics. Only Valerie Adams, who came back with a vengeance to enjoy a stellar year, looms as a stronger prospect when the gold medals are handed out.
There is plenty else for New Zealanders to anticipate. How, for example, will Jacko Gill, a prodigious young talent, perform in the men's shot put? Can Lisa Carrington sustain her astounding canoeing breakthrough? Will the cycling squad fulfil their potential in the best possible manner? Thanks to the All Blacks and others who broke through this year, we can anticipate all this with a heightened equanimity, if no less enthusiasm. We do, after all, as Piri Weepu suggested, have good reason to be feeling a whole lot better.