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Why is it called ‘the big dance’? Photo: Getty Images. Design: Archi Banal
Why is it called ‘the big dance’? Photo: Getty Images. Design: Archi Banal

SportsOctober 28, 2023

Why is everyone calling the Rugby World Cup final ‘the big dance’?

Why is it called ‘the big dance’? Photo: Getty Images. Design: Archi Banal
Why is it called ‘the big dance’? Photo: Getty Images. Design: Archi Banal

You can’t move for ‘big dance’ chat ahead of the last tango in Paris.

“Richie Mo’unga takes it, he kicks it out,” said Grant Nisbett as the final whistle blew on the Rugby World Cup semi-final against Argentina. “And the All Blacks are headed to the big dance.” Twenty-four hours later, we cut back to the Sky Sport studio from Paris. “South Africa are going to the big dance,” said Laura McGoldrick. 

“Ultimately, they are in the big dance and we are not,” concluded English half-back Danny Care in an interview following a tightly fought loss to the Springboks. Care’s counterpart, Aaron Smith, summed up the New Zealand position this way: “We’ve taken another step in this tournament and we’re in the big dance.”

“Looking forward to the big dance,” said Sonny Bill Williams. “Off to the big dance 🥳” cheered the All Blacks Twitter account on Sunday morning. In the afternoon they said it again, but with new emojis. “Off to the big dance. 🕺💃”

What they’re trying to say is: Off to the big dance.

The big dance, as the big brains will have worked out, has become the moniker du jour for the Rugby World Cup final, the contest for the William Webb Ellis trophy. But whence did it come? Is there a story as long and sinuous as the search for the origin of Up the Wahs? Is the big dance a long groove? No. It isn’t particularly. But let’s continue.  

The use of the term “the big dance” in sport originates in the metaphor wellspring of American basketball. It is used to describe the US postseason college tournament, also known as “March Madness”.

According to a 2010 ESPN post it began with revered coach Al McGuire. 

“Back in 1977, he was coaching Marquette and wearing a lucky blue blazer. And when the regular season was over, someone asked him if he planned to keep on wearing that jacket in the tournament. Al said, ‘Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.’ And with that, Marquette danced all the way to the national title.”

Since then, the big dance has come to be applied to any number of sporting pinnacles. A swift search of the information superhighway reveals the big dance of Motogp, of Olympic swimming finals, of softball, kids’ soccer, rugby league. Last year an annual $2 million horse race officially called The Big Dance was launched in Sydney, to be held, in keeping with the spirit of amity between the two Australia states, 40 minutes before the Melbourne Cup. 

The big dance thing is not altogether new to these shores. The twinkle toes of New Zealand sports writing, Dylan Cleaver, used “big dance” to describe the NRL grand final and the Superbowl in his Bounce newsletter in 2021 and 2022. Newshub and Stuff both used it to describe the rugby final in 2019. It’s impossible to prove, but very likely that Eric Cantona, ahead of the 1994 FA Cup Final, sat against a wall chewing tobacco and thought to himself: Am I human, or am I Big Dancer?

So that’s it. A cool college basketball story which proliferated around the world of sport, and now everyone is saying it, a bit like the time all rugby commentators felt the need to call halves of a game “stanzas”. 

If that explanation doesn’t do it for you, we could choose an alternative. 

Either: The term “the big dance” originates from the breakdancing that future All Black coach Scott Robertson performs at future World Cup victories by future All Blacks.

Scott Robertson does the big breakdance after another Crusaders win. Photo: Getty

Or, better: The term “the big dance” originates from the Rugby World Cup final of 2011, when John Key, his fellow All Black Richie McCaw and the IRB bigwig Bernard Lapasset did a sexy three-way finger tango that set the world alight. Up the wahltz.

Keep going!