Around 3:45 a.m. on Sunday, the bouncers started warning patrons of the Red Lion that if they left, they would not be readmitted. But inside, the bar was still serving, and the crowd was not thinning: this was a “lock-in.” Patrons had each paid $10 for the privilege of watching live, on one of the Greenwich Village bar’s many available screens, New Zealand play France for the Rugby World Cup. Kick-off would be at 4 a.m.
Now that the cover band had cleared the stage, middle-aged men in sports jerseys jostled one another in the crowd. A young woman leaned in and drew a fern, the symbol of New Zealand, on someone’s cheek with a Sharpie. A table full of French fans, several in cockscomb hats, was an island of tricolor in a sea of black. A waitress made desultory rounds. If you’d wanted a table, you’d have had to be there by 2 at the latest.
Mickey Rourke had missed the deadline and was standing.
“Well, I was hoping to see New Zealand play Wales,” said Mr. Rourke, wistfully. (The Welsh had been eliminated by France in the semi-finals.) Mr. Rourke’s interest in rugby is a recent one. The wizened actor—who this late evening was dressed in V-neck T-shirt, and a blazer with a fob chain bisecting the breast—is set to play the lead in a biopic about Welsh fullback Gareth Thomas, the first, and to date only, rugby player to come out as gay.
Mr. Rourke was supporting the New Zealand team, the All Blacks. “New Zealand is always the team to beat,” he said. “You talk about rugby, you talk about the All Blacks.”
He’s right. Rugby occupies a place in the Kiwi culture akin to that of ice hockey in Canada, or futebol in Brazil. Children learn the finer points of the offside rule at mum’s knee. Men like Buck Shelford—who once had his scrotum ruptured by a French cleat that left him with one dangling testicle, then got the team doctor to stitch him up so he could return to the field—are venerated as heroes.
The All Blacks are indisputably the world’s best rugby team. They are both the winningest and the highest-scoring team in the sport’s history; they’ve won more than 75 percent of their games since 1903. But in World Cup competition, the All Blacks have a habit of losing to inferior teams.
Tensions at the lock-in were therefore high.
The Transom was watching with a fashion stylist who had to work the next morning and a male model, who didn’t. Christopher Landon, the model, was born in Auckland; he previously played there in a feeder league for the local pro division. Did Mr. Landon know any All Blacks? “Yeah, I trained with some of these guys,” he offered.
“Like who?” we wondered.
Oh, just about five guys out of the starting 15. Including the hooker Keven Mealamu, who is famed for having once had the Shelfordian forbearance to continue playing after an opponent tried to sever his ear.
With a try in the 15th minute, the game went 5-0 in New Zealand’s favor, but the All Blacks failed to convert. The score didn’t budge for the rest of the half, as both teams played a tight, mean game. In the second half, France missed a penalty kick and New Zealand landed one, bringing the score to 8-0.
To our right was a couple wearing matching Chuck Taylors and All Blacks jerseys. The Transom asked if they had caught last week’s semi-final. “No,” replied the woman, “We had to get married!” She and her husband were in the U.S. on business when they’d eloped to Vegas. This was their honeymoon.
Then France scored a try, and converted. The score was 8-7.
In the middle of the crowd, an old man in a sport coat clutched his pint glass worriedly.
And then, for the remaining 32 minutes, nothing happened. Well, things happened: there was rucking, mauling, scrummaging, and all the usual violence of this game that no-one would call beautiful. But no scoring. By 5:45, the lowest-scoring, and closest, World Cup final ever was over, and New Zealand had won. The bleary fans, more relieved than exuberant, shuffled out into the breaking day.