For All Blacks fans, a Rugby World Cup miracle reignited hope – and then snuffed it out | New Zealand

For the crush of All Blacks fans at Jack Hackett Sports Bar in Wellington, New Zealand, the hope that hardly anyone expected to have died hard.

More than 100 supporters crowded the Irish-themed pub – rapidly redecorated with silver ferns, New Zealand flags, and black and white balloons draped from a stuffed moose – for a breakfast of hash browns, sausages and Guinness pints. A smattering wore hastily found All Blacks jerseys from 2011 and 2015: the years of New Zealand’s most recent Rugby World Cup titles.

Just a few weeks ago, few of these fans expected their country to be contesting for another; despite an uptick in performance, the All Blacks were still significant underdogs after a year of dismal play. Now, however, a miracle had brought them to the final, reminding many of why they loved the game.

“This is my upbringing,” said Sam Masima, as he and two friends huddled in a corner. “This is my life.”

With the opportunity for redemption so close, many present couldn’t shake their anxiety. “I’ve been nervous since Friday,” said James Law, who had brought half a dozen friends to watch with him. “I’ve been shaking for days.”

But amid the nerves, hope had emerged. “I’m nervous and 100% confident at the same time,” said Simon Smith, as he finished his breakfast in the moments before kickoff. “I don’t know if those things work together.”

Suddenly, the game began, the volume turned up so loud that bass thundered inside the chests of those watching. A bounce of the ball stymied one New Zealand try, missed passes prevented another. At the back of the bar, a woman stood against the window, illuminated by sun filtering through a blue New Zealand flag, her hands clasped in something like prayer.

It got worse. A yellow card was issued, then upgraded to a red. The room erupted. “That’s the game gone then,” said Sam Teal. He took out his phone to tune out the match, then decided after a few moments that he couldn’t give up. “No, no, I’ve got faith in the boys.”

Only one part of the bar wasn’t inundated with black-clad fans: a corner booth occupied by Gareth Hadden, a Springbok supporter from Zimbabwe. “They mean family to me,” he said of the team. But even he was unconvinced they could hold their lead. “It’s pretty standard for the All Blacks to pull it out of the bag at the last minute.”

Half-time passed. The All Blacks remained several points behind. The hope endured. “If there’s any team that can pull off a comeback, it’s the All Blacks,” said Masima. Beers and food forgotten, a staccato of screams and shouts erupted, vanished, and erupted again as a try brought them close. With two minutes left, the All Blacks were one scrum and two points away from history.

The room went silent. One fan standing at the bar appeared to be hyperventilating. Others kept their eyes locked on the television. Waves of black slammed against the Springbok line. It wasn’t enough. The whistle blew. The game was over. The All Blacks had lost.

Nobody spoke. A few claps came from Hadden’s direction, but they were half-hearted and soon petered out. From his perch in the corner, Masima refused to look away from the broken players on the screen. “I’m absolutely shattered, bro.”

To his side, his friend Marv Karawama took a shuddering breath. “We had the hunger. We nearly got there.”

The hope that many had only just rediscovered vanished. Flows of fans surged out of the bar, leaving behind half-eaten hash browns and half-drunk pints.

Behind them, the stereo began to play Slice of Heaven, Dave Dobbyn’s song, anthemic for New Zealanders. “Hey, I’ve got a lot of faith in you. I’ll stick with you kid, that’s the bottom line,” crooned Dobbyn. “Yeah, you have a lot of fun don’t you. And living with you is a ball of a time.” For All Blacks fans, a Rugby World Cup miracle reignited hope – and then snuffed it out | New Zealand

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