There can't be many New Zealanders who don't love the All Blacks. I have a daughter who doesn't; used to go fishing with a bloke in Hawke's Bay, all hulking six feet four (192cm) of him, who'd never played rugby nor had the slightest interest. But they're the exception.
The All Blacks are kind of our religion. Yet we don't worship as such so much as passionately analyse every moment and every player. Unlike the French, who are passionate just for its own sake. Each and every male Kiwi rugby fan considers himself an expert, if not a better coach and selector than the three wise men. How often do we hear, "How has Hansen picked this guy? He's terrible."?
This atypical bloke can't be told he was no great shakes as a player, if he played senior rugby at all. Let alone coached a team. In every bar, at every rugby club, the same type looks you in the eye and says, "Hansen inherited most this team from Graham Henry. Anyone could coach them to victory." With not a blink.
In the same way, many sports journalists think they know better than the All Black coaches. I always think of the player's parents, how they must feel to read scathing criticism of the son whose career they made by taking him to every practice, watching every game. A father spent countless hours passing, fetching kicks, teaching tackling techniques, sidestep, body positioning. A mother and all that muddy washing turned into a perfectly ironed stack of sorts and jersey, socks and polished boots so her son just assumed this happened by some miracle. Letting her boy shed secret tears in her arms.
The sacrifices they made, both of time and stretched finances; never letting go the dream. To finally wear that most-coveted black jersey only to be damned by an overweight journo, or a scrawny one who never played a minute of the game. How would you feel as a parent to read the knockers?
Now we have this hater phenomenon: armies of cowards given life by the anonymity of social media. No different to a kid given free range throwing stones at people passing his house with no consequences.
The beautiful game has got better. Because the players are paid and pretty handsomely by Kiwi standards. They're definitely far bigger; Colin Meads is smaller than some wings. Their skills take our breaths away.
I left a place in the middle of France at 4am to drive back to see the Sydney Bledisloe Cup test, with the final draft of a column to write first. At an ex-pat Kiwi's house, with something of an international cast, we saw a first half of sublime beauty - if such a word-combination is permitted. The little Maori link, Aaron Smith, is his own act of sublime beauty: flow, swiftness, skill, impossibly long accurate passes, tenacity, cunning; taunting, grim and smiling, a ferocious tackler. And he's just one of near an entire team of world-class players. We've had four beautiful years of this.
In fact, way more than four. Our All Blacks have helped define our country. At the Frankfurt Book Fair several years ago I said in every interview that rugby defines us before anything else. Now settle down you literary folk. I love literature the same as you do. Rugby the same.
Stand on any sideline, from Te Hapua to the Bluff, to see the same enthusiasm, the same racial inclusion, the same parents-from-hell and tch-tching quieter ones.
See the blokes in swannis, gumboots, oilskins, track pants and thongs; hear the mums calling out encouragement, restraining from embarrassing her boy with a hug after the match. Observe them, listen, feel them and know your countrymen and women. Rugby has done more for racial harmony than any government policy or Maori radicals' hard-won demands for respect.
We care not that Tana leading the haka is Samoan Kiwi, or Richie is a Pakeha, or that Liam is a mixed-race adoptee of, he says, magnificent parents who happen to be English. Now Aaron has taken over where Piri left off. Buck raised the bar way back. The ABs keep getting better and better.