If you only know one national rugby team, chances are it’s the All Blacks of New Zealand, whose pre-game haka displays are like a drill team routine as choreographed by Ray Lewis. The host Kiwis just beat France in the Rugby World Cup final to win their first Webb Ellis Cup since the inaugural 1987 World Cup. That’s a big deal in New Zealand for the obvious reasons. But it’s all the sweeter because the win came over France, which New Zealand has cause to detest even more than the rest of us do.
In pure sporting terms, New Zealand is used to heartbreak (“Given a World Cup to win, the All Blacks usually become basket cases,” as the Wall Street Journal put it) and France has greased that 24-year World Cup drought, beating New Zealand in the 1999 semifinals and the 2007 quarters. There were a couple of nasty test match losses in there along the way as well, including one in 1994 in which France won on a rally so late most of the game photographers had already packed their gear. Now only 12-39 against New Zealand, France nonetheless had spooked the All Blacks, and indeed managed to keep it close. As 17-point underdogs, France lost this weekend by a single point.
More deeply, New Zealand has held a grudge against France since 1985, when French agents operating in Auckland sank a Greenpeace ship that had planned to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific. It’s a sordid episode, one that led to the resignation of the head of French intelligence. Divers planted mines on the Rainbow Warrior as it sat docked in the port of Auckland. The first was meant to detonate and scare the crew into a safe evacuation, allowing the second to finish the boat off. But a photographer named Fernando Pereira went below deck to retrieve his equipment after the first explosion. When the second mine blew up, flooding the ship, he drowned.
France, an ally of New Zealand, initially condemned the attack. Then New Zealand authorities arrested two of the French agents involved before they could flee the country. They pled guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years, though diplomatic machinations reduced that significantly. France paid hefty sums to New Zealand and to Greenpeace. (Per habit the Wikipedia entry about the Rainbow Warrior sinking is quite solid indeed.) In 2005 Admiral Pierre Lacoste, who was the head of France’s external intelligence agency at the time of Operation Satanique, said of the attack: “I would perfectly understand it if New Zealanders considered this act to be an act of terrorism, to sink a boat in a port where there are just yachtsmen, peaceful people.”
So not only has France derailed a couple of the All Blacks’ Cup runs, the country admittedly engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, or something akin to that, in New Zealand a generation ago. That’s why, when the All Blacks polished off Les Bleus, you saw Twitter registering the New Zealand victory (or, more precisely, the French loss) with messages like this: