Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's New Zealand's Hour - Rugby Union World Cup


Rugby Scrum between Shirley Club and Russian team


I saw the countdown clock on the square of Christchurch, New Zealand in April of 2010.  At the time, it showed 76 weeks, five days, three hours, and 40 minutes to the most popular event in all of New Zealand and much of the world down under - the Rugby Union World Cup.  Yes, it was a year and a half away but the Kiwis were already counting.  They are not alone.  Viewership worldwide for these games ranks third  after the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer.

Christchurch and its environs are typical of the rugby mania in New Zealand’s communities, with 49 rugby club teams, averaging a team for every 7,000 people.  This would be the equivalent to seven adult football teams in Lamar County.  Each club team has its own field and club house where gear is stored and players gather for a beer after games.  Most run a sports program for the youth and host family parties.  Some teams have been around for over 100 years.

Out of this strong building program come the professional teams.  Before the earthquake, the Christchurch Crusaders played at AMI stadium that held about 40,000 fans.  Because of the cracks in the facility, Christchurch couldn’t host its seven World Cup games but they are well represented on the national All Black team with 12 of the 30 players.

During our visit, the Shirley Club team was playing on a Sunday afternoon and we caught a city bus out to their field.  Fans were sitting on the ground or standing behind.  I sat by Anita, a Polynesian woman, whose son was hoping to play for Shirley.  He had played in Australia but couldn’t support his family since they only got paid if the team won.

Rugby Throw In
The game was a bit unusual as the opposing team was Russian.  We learned there was an offside as in soccer.  Throw-ins were great.  Each squad lifted a player high in the air to catch the ball- similar to our cheerleaders stunts. And then there is the scrum, a way of restarting a game.  Each team circled around in a common huddle while the referee barks out “Get Set.  Touch.  Engage.”  The successful team handed off  the ball to a player in back and all moved forward - a kind of quarterback sneak.  A few players wore helmets, a possible indication that the player had suffered from a concussion but most men preferred to play macho and bareheaded.

Anita’s  son favored the “union” style of rugby most popular in New Zealand to the “league” style of Australia.  The details of the differences were too technical for my limited knowledge of the game but I did understand  the union style allowed unlimited tackles and more points for the different scoring chances, including increased points for just trying for a goal.   After that, I felt like an European soccer fan watching American football for the first time - bewildered.

What distinguishes the New Zealand All Black team is the performance of the Haka before each game, a tradition that began as far back as 1894.   This Maori dance startled Wales the first time it was performed on a European tour in 1903.  “After that, the All Blacks became the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries existed between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the formal challenge of the haka had a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they stepped onto the field.”

The following  translation of the haka isn’t particularly frightening and seems barely connected to winning a game.   But chanting it to a pounding rhythm can rattle opponents.

Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Ka mate Ka mate  It is death It is death
Ka ora Ka ora  It is life It is life
Tenei Te Tangata Puhuruhuru  This is the hairy man
Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra  Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Upane Upane   Up the ladder Up the ladder
Upane Kaupane   Up to the top
Whiti te ra  The sun shines!

As host, New Zealand is anxious to win this year’s trophy.  Their last victory was in 1987, the initial year of the Rugby Union World Cup. A recent article in England’s Guardian newspaper describes New Zealand as desperate to win.  Another claims “Our Turf Our Time”.  On the web, the Wait-of-a-Nation site pokes fun at the hand-wringing and misery of fans who feel the team capable of winning but fear it won’t.

With the entire country almost at a standstill, the tournament is being broadcast on at least four channels and by satellite. Twenty teams will play over the next two months until the final on October 23rd.   New Zealand’s  All Black team is actually favored to win - 4/7 odds - with Australia picked for second.   For a nation who has suffered devastation and loss from recent earthquakes and who loves the sport more than any others, I hope the countdown clock is to victory.


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