Sometimes sport, and even the recently under-fire game of rugby, lifts itself onto a new plane as seen in the New Zealand Maori clash with Munster yesterday.
Not because it was a particularly wonderful match. The conditions and the scrappiness of the encounter and a disorganised and oddly acquiescent Maori side saw to that, as did Munster winning the set pieces, the breakdown and playing the better wet-weather rugby.
No, it was because of that emotional haka and tribute to fallen former Irish No 8 and Munster coach Anthony Foley, with Maori skipper Ash Dixon not only leading the haka but placing a black jersey with the initials 'AF' ahead of the haka formation. Afterwards, Dixon carefully folded the jersey and, on one knee, presented it to Foley's bereaved sons.
If you had a dry eye or an unobstructed throat after that, you were either a zombie or a tree. But it signalled, after the Irish defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago and a thoroughly deserved win by Munster, a new and piquant rivalry in international rugby.
It was born not just of the defeats but emotion (the end of a 111-year drought and that tribute to Foley) and mutual respect. You saw it in the Munster match - and they have a happy relationship with New Zealand rugby after their win over the All Blacks 44 years ago - when they out-warriored the Maori warriors.
There were a couple of hometown decisions from an otherwise excellent referee but that only adds to things. Like all intense rivalries, there is now a sense of unfinished business which will last well after whatever happens in Ireland next week.
New Zealand Rugby, if they are ever criticised again about holding money-hungry offshore test matches, can now point to Chicago and how it has cemented a new and interesting international dynamic. If rugby tours were not organised so far in advance, you'd bet they'd be trying to organise a full tour of Ireland ASAP.
In pure rugby terms, the Maori were oddly hesitant, put off their stride by Munster's defence and physical approach. Maybe they put too much into that haka. There were career-limiting performances from halfback Billy Guyton and fullback Marty McKenzie who somehow lasted an hour before being hooked.
It will also be interesting to see changes in All Blacks thinking after that defeat in Chicago. There may be some blessings in disguise from that defeat:
- It will be a long time before this All Blacks panel choose another converted loose forward to start at lock, possibly a little sliver of arrogance seeping out in selection.
- Some teams will have noticed the vulnerability of the All Blacks to a sustained physical challenge. England, South Africa, France - all have been talking about sharpening their own ball skills and mobility recently. Yet the last time the All Blacks lost unexpectedly - at Twickenham, on tour in 2012 - the circumstances were similar: a touch of complacency, end-of-season tiredness, a big England pack, a determined physical assault where an admittedly much younger Brodie Retallick was dominated and asphyxiation of the All Blacks skill-set.
It's not foolproof. More than one good international side has been dismembered by this All Blacks team as they tried to bully them up front. But in a tournament like the World Cup, the physical shakedown can be a good bet. That could play into All Black hands.
- The Lions tour next year will now not be taken for granted, particularly up front. Warren Gatland must be cursing the Irish.
- It will focus attention on what happens if Retallick and/or the rugged Sam Whitelock are not available at lock. Patrick Tuipulotu was puzzlingly quiet against the Irish; hopefully only an aberration. Luke Romano is nearing the end of his international career. Scott Barrett is full of promise but unproven, an athlete and smaller lock as opposed to a physical presence.
It's an ideal time for someone like Dominic Bird (the tallest All Black ever at 2.06m and 112kg) to assert himself. However, like many very tall men, he has the tendency to be too upright in contact and will have to convince the selectors he has the mental hardness required to add to his two tests in 2013 and 2014.
What we learned against Ireland (and Munster) is that physical presence and set-piece basics are still required along with athleticism and ball skills.
In time, Hurricanes lock Michael Fatialofa could be a candidate. He has never-back-down tendencies and a big engine but might need some more work on ball skills.
And what about another relocated Aucklander Taleni Seu? He is a loose forward but, at 2.02m and 109kg, could be converted to a lock fulltime with some extra beef. He has real go-forward qualities, is uncompromisingly physical and has ball skills from his basketball.