A time to bury ghosts of the past
It is 2031. He sits on the bench with his head in his hands. His titanium sprigs clatter on the painted concrete floor of the dressing room as his legs jiggle. Nerves. He fiddles with the padded bandages above his knees and kneads his forehead, already wet with sweat, with the base of his palm.
He can hear the noise of 120,000 expectant voices from the stands above the dressing room.
He closes his eyes and tries to concentrate on the exhortations from coach Richie McJaw. He hears the words "destiny", "fulfilment", "our time" and "the hand of fate". He can imagine co- coach Dan Latte tossing a ball from hand to hand as McJaw talks to the players. He doesn't listen to the rest.
He has heard the message all his life. "We must vindicate the ABEP." He feels ready. At times like this he lets his mind go back to his daily rugby history lessons. 2011, known now only as the "Final Humiliation".
So much had been expected and initially so much went right. The All Blacks had trounced every team leading up to the final in emphatic fashion.
South Africa wilted under a ferocious 80-minute onslaught and Australia imploded after the All Blacks scored two magnificent early tries.
The black jerseys played with stunning fluency and verve, delivering a feast of tries, running rugby and awesome, relentless power. Then into the hot cauldron of the final with England, the surprise competition. The bookies had the All Blacks 20-1. Something terrible happened. It was as though the godlike All Blacks had flown too close to the sun. They played like a Samson without his hair. They faltered, back pedalled and ran out of ideas. The English squeezed them like a lemon, depriving them of ball, using drop kicks and penalties to eke out a painfully dull victory.
A nation wept at the cruelty of it. Wise rugby heads from rugby's top body met and vowed to formulate a plan which would mean that 20 years hence the All Blacks would be unbeatable. The doyens figured it would take 20 years to rebuild. They would sacrifice the next four World Cups. 2031 would be the year and then the cup would never be taken from them again.
The All Black Enhancement Programme (ABEP) was born. Generative fluid was collected from all the best rugby players in the country. Tall, strong, athletic women were recruited to be inseminated. There was no shortage of volunteers. A high proportion were top netballers wanting to do their bit for the country.
Combinations were carefully selected to produce props, locks, wings and loose forwards.
At the age of three, the mothers and their sons were whittled down to a group of 200, purely on the basis of the rugby potential of the progeny. A town was set up under a cloak of secrecy. Nothing was left to chance.
Mothers were trained to provide a physique-enhancing diet and to encourage aggression and perseverance in their offspring. Schooling concentrated on sport psychology, rugby history, tactics, ball handling, scrummaging, mauling, ball retention, rules, match preparation, injury rehabilitation, physiology, haka and martial arts. At the insistence of the mothers, the rugby school added some namby pamby subjects like English and Social Studies.
By four the boys were playing tackle rugby, by five they could play 80 minutes of concentrated footy and by seven they were capable of beating a team of teenagers.
When they reached the age of 16, they were injected into normal competition. They excelled immediately. They were bigger, faster, stronger, more skilled, cleverer - by miles.
Despite their youth, by 2027 they were making their mark and when the All Black squad was selected in 2031, ABEP graduates filled all but two of the 30 places. Much was made of the youth and freshness of the All Black team but there was no doubting its sheer genius and awe-inspiring power. Never had 30 young men, only two (non-ABEP) of whom were over 20, looked so formidable.
Now it comes to this. Ben feels a warm glow in the pit of his stomach as he looks at coach McJaw. Ben often wonders who his father is but the ABEP graduates are not allowed to know. Now the still barrel-chested coach is looking intensely at him. Their eyes meet and then each look away. At that moment Ben knows and he also knows he will be letting coach down.
He looks over to Adam, the new wing in the team. Crikey, only 16, but also a product of ABEP. The programme was learning lessons from each crop of players produced. People often said they could be brothers. He looks at coach again.
Where would it end? Ben knows at least where it will start. It will start here, with a victory so resounding it will wipe away the humiliation and disappointment of every past defeat.