Of course rugby is important to most New Zealanders. Our very existence feels dependent on the All Blacks giving us victory after victory. Our nation’s prime athletes, yet they feel like one of us, albeit in elevated form. That could be our brother out there, a favourite nephew, son or grandson, the young man next door, on whose performance our happiness depends.
Such was the RWC quarter-final against France. I watched it with a bunch of French mates as the sole Kiwi. Seeing their miserable expressions toned down my joy. Same I felt sad for the English team dropping out of the competition they were hosting. Sure, we like to hate the Poms. But it would have been better to knock them out on the field at a later stage.
Some people say I go on too much about rugby and I do. I love the complexity of game itself, the team spirit, the drama, the epic moments; and our All Blacks carry the weight of the nation like no other does. Kiwis are rather quiet and analytical at our matches.
Over here rugby is a family occasion and it’s loud. Three generations will go to a local match, even though kick-off is usually at 8.45 p.m. That’s a lot of kids you’d expect to be grizzly, hungry, bored and tired. Not so.
The children of Bayonne revel in being at big games. Nor is it in their upbringing to be grizzly, horrible, whining; and the snack culture hardly exists here. I say that with emphasis: the French don’t have a need to be constantly feeding their faces like too many Kiwis. Hence they’re slimmer and, I’m certain, happier.
Of course the kids run around in the stands playing their own games. But never that far from the family nest or indeed with eyes off the game for long. The presence of mothers and grandmothers is always good for males, even more so a game of physical contact. Rugby is so much more physical now, players have builds we never saw in my day except freaks.
What hasn’t changed very much is the culture, of both the players and the spectators. It is still a civilised occasion, we do not do the soccer hoodlum violence in the stands thing. Never. As in not once in the history of the game of rugby has there been a riot, a mass brawl, an act of arson, or any incident requiring the presence of security or the police with batons.
Our beloved game would not put up for a moment the drama-queen antics of soccer players rolling multiple times on the floor, writhing, sobbing, pounding the ground with fists in a tantrum, dropping like being struck by a bullet, remonstrating hysterically with the ref, sulking like kids, having public altercations with their coach. Not our game – bud. Go do that in your own ghetto backyard.
Richie McCaw, the epitome of everything great about the game, said after a 62-13 total humiliation of the French, “It’s only earned us another week here. It all starts anew on Monday.” Aw shucks, Richie. Really? Even you, our God-like figure, are allowed to wallow just a little bit.
And the human wrecking ball dubbed “The Bus” Julien Savea, what did he have to say to being compared to Jonah Lomu? “No. Jonah’s a legend. And I’m not.” I’m just a humble boy from Wellington grateful for the hard work the forwards put in. Aw shucks to you too, Jules. You are as good as the great Jonah. Own it.
I’ve stated at numerous book festivals here in France that to understand New Zealand you must know our mad passion for rugby supersedes everything else. I say the game has done more for race relations in New Zealand than anything else.
A rugby-loving redneck still cheers wildly at a Maori or Pacific Islander scoring a try. He felt proud, despite himself, at Tana Umaga introducing the brilliant new All Black haka. Brian Williams and all the PIs that followed him eroded Pakeha prejudice against PIs. Waka Nathan in the 60s did the same for Maoris that the great George Nepia didn’t quite manage. Shelford put starch into the AB haka, as he did the number 8 position.
Then along comes Zinzan Brooke, with his extraordinary range of skills to go with his equal hardness to Shelford’s. His younger brother Robin right up there too. All the other brown boys who immediately became our ‘own’ sons helped break this mindset.
Because of our insane love of rugby, it has done more healing to race relations than anything else. So thanks, boys. We owe you yet again.