Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks v France: Destiny of a nation awaits

New Zealand has transformed into the mythical land of perception during this Rugby World Cup. It is the place many imagined it would be - rickety posts in random paddocks, cult figures lauded by their communities and, as was promised, a stadium of four million.

It's strange that the Rugby World Cup is being held 12,000 miles from where the game was invented and yet it feels like rugby has come home. New Zealand is the game's spiritual home and now thoughts must turn to what victory would mean for a nation that seriously wondered whether the All Blacks would ever win a World Cup again.

No one should take tonight for granted. The game will be considerably harder than many apparently believe, but if the All Blacks have nailed their preparation, retain the intensity, focus and tempo they produced in the semifinal, then they should win.

They really should win, and then what? Hugging, dancing, singing ... relief, silent prayer and a firm handshake ... does anyone know? It's been so long, and then there is the question of whether New Zealanders know how to do spontaneous joy.

The latter may have been answered last Sunday at Eden Park. There was a sense of the country coming of age; the All Blacks were everything the nation wanted them to be and in return the crowd came alive.

A spontaneous chant of "four more years" ... little brother had seized the moment.

IRB boss Mike Miller had said a few days earlier that 2011 was probably the best tournament ever. By Sunday night he could have dropped the probably - little old New Zealand had been the perfect host; the perfect place for the perfect tournament, and 60,000 people at Eden Park began to understand not just what the All Blacks had achieved, but what the entire country had achieved.

Victory, should it come tonight, will allow a nation to loosen a cork that has been in just that little bit tight. Victory will validate all those years of All Black dominance; it will confirm New Zealand as the best side in the world, and for the first time in 24 years there will be no one able to dispute that.

Victory should bring a little contentment, a lot of pride and Queen's Birthday Honours for a few of the squad.

On a bigger scale, it's not expected to produce a spike in playing numbers as has been the case in other countries that have either hosted or won the World Cup. Playing numbers, from an already high base, have been nudging up since 2007 and there isn't the capacity available for there to be a quantum leap on the back of this tournament.

In the immediate to mid-term, having had the World Cup here and possibly winning it will be a powerful reminder of the global reach of rugby and New Zealand's standing in that fraternity. Images of Richie McCaw triumphant at Eden Park, Webb Ellis Cup held aloft, will reaffirm rugby as the right choice in many households, if not inspire new converts.

"When Australia hosted the World Cup in 2003," says New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew, "they enjoyed a big leap in playing numbers after the event. But you have to remember rugby is not a major sport over there and there are some places where it is barely played. A lot of the numbers dropped away after a short time so there was a bit of a novelty factor in them hosting.

"We have to be realistic about our legacy expectations as we are an already developed rugby nation. We have worked exceptionally hard in the last few years to keep and grow playing numbers and we are not expecting to see an explosion of people playing the game if we win the World Cup."

The bigger hope is that in these cash-strapped times a World Cup victory will allow the NZRU to demand better rates when it comes to All Black sponsorships. They hope, too, that a wider range of brands will suddenly be interested in pumping cash into the world's best rugby team. It might not be that major corporations start banging their door down, but maybe a World Cup is the little push required to convince an already interested party to sign the cheque.

"When we are looking for offshore sponsors and put a slide of the All Black results in front of them, we get a strong reaction. They sit up and take notice as it is a record unique in any sporting code," says Tew.

"But while it is true that it is our overall record that attracts sponsors, I think winning the World Cup is an extra accolade. I am pretty sure South Africa found life that little bit easier being able to say they were world champions. It is a tough environment and winning the World Cup would definitely help us."

Who knows, maybe a title will even see people come back to Super Rugby grounds next year. Maybe the live experience is now in the blood of significant numbers of people who had never been interested prior to this World Cup.

If there has been one giant step made in the last six weeks, it has been in the quality of the stadium experience. Gone are the days of mud, pies and chips; rugby is no longer gearing itself towards only those who once played.

There would have to be hope, and not a forlorn one either, that those who have dipped their toes in the World Cup waters will have genuinely enjoyed the experience and be prepared to engage now with Super Rugby and All Black tests.

Viewership of Super Rugby and All Blacks tests should enjoy a boost, too. Rugby is on a high - the nation is gripped. Perception is now reality.

- Herald on Sunday

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