Monday, August 23, 2010

My Log 216: New Zealand All Blacks sweeping all before them with a spectacular running game of Rugby Union played at breakneck speed

Now that the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team ---My Team, as they would say in this part of the world ---- have beaten the South African Springboks in three successive test matches, the third of them before 94,000 fans in South Africa --- I think I can be allowed a moment to explain the significance of this to my fellow citizens, who are deprived of knowledge of this game by the virtual blackout maintained, for mysterious reasons, by the media.

For months I have been telling anyone who cared to listen --- not many, I must admit --- that the All Blacks had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Springboks this year. So their total dominance over their great rivals has had the effect of exploding whatever slight pretensions I might have shown towards having an expert knowledge of the sport.

Okay, I am happy, nonetheless. Because what this year’s results in the Tri-Nations competition between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have shown is that for New Zealanders, Rugby is closely analogous to what ice hockey is for Canadians. Canadians always say that hockey is Our Game. Similarly New Zealanders claim that Rugby Union is Their Game.

New Zealanders play the game from childhood, absorb its history and ethos, glory in the international successes won by their team, and generally have it in their bones as very few other countries in the world have any sport in their bones.

In fact, with a success rate against international opponents of something like 80 per cent, all time, the All Blacks are recognized as the most successful single sports team in any sport in the world. Better than any baseball team; better than Manchester United; better even than Brazil, at Soccer. Certainly, it is the All Blacks, year in and year out, that other nations want to beat; the All Blacks that players from other countries want to play against; the All Blacks that have become the iconic team of Rugby Union, a game played in 95 countries around the world. New Zealand is ranked No 1; Canada 14th, the USA 15th.

And the All Blacks come from a small country of only four million people, certainly the smallest country among any of the top countries in the Rugby world.

They got the name on a very early trip to Europe, more than 100 years ago, when they emerged from the South Pacific wearing an all black uniform. It had nothing to do with the colour of the players, although in the modern world almost half of the All Blacks are usually of Polynesian origin, Maori, islander, or of mixed blood, although all have either been born in New Zealand or have grown up there. They precede every game by performing a stirring Maori haka, as a challenge to their opponents, and their national anthem is sung in both Maori and English.

Last year the South Africans beat the All Blacks three times. They mastered a quite boring game, based, as it always has been, on great strength among the forwards, a pinpoint kicking with fast following up from wingers, a game of force and, if one might say so, brutality. This year, with a tweak to how the international rules are interpreted to enliven the game and make it more open to running and passing, the All Blacks were the first to master the new interpretations, and they have, according to all the critics, rescued the game and re-established it as an enthralling spectacle. Certainly the last game against the Springboks, played at Soweto in the stadium built for the World Soccer Cup, was a wonderful test of strength, skill, intelligence and execution, one of the best test matches anyone can remember seeing.

Although traditionally the two best nations at this game, South Africa and New Zealand have been uncomfortable companions. During many years, South Africa refused to allow Maori players to enter their country, and the New Zealand authorities supinely went along, and chose teams that excluded Maoris. At the height of the appalling apartheid regime, South Africa was excluded from international sports competition, but when, in 1981 a conservative New Zealand government agreed to allow a Springboks team to enter New Zealand, the resulting protest led to the closest thing New Zealand has ever experienced to a civil war. Many games were played surrounded by barbed wire entanglements, and squads of armed police, intended to keep protesters out of the grounds; and in one, a light plane bombed the match with flour bags.

With the overthrow of the racist regime South Africa was permitted back into international sport, and colored players were allowed to tour the country. The ramifications of this were examined in the excellent movie, seen by many Canadians, Invictus, which showed how Nelson Mandela used the fact that Rugby Union was the favorite game of the racist group the Afrikaaners, to pander to them by encouraging their team to win the 1995 World Cup, although the very symbol of the Springboks was hated by Mandela's own followers.

At the moment, there is little doubt that the quality of Rugby played by the three Southern Hemisphere teams, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, is better, and is played at greater pace than anything in the Northern hemisphere, although New Zealanders and others are expecting the northerners to wake up, abandon their usually rather sluggish attitude towards the game, and adopt the free running game now being exhibited by the All Blacks.

Rugby is played in all parts of Canada, and internationally by Canada with reasonable success, but it is distressing to Rugby fans that the game is virtually ignored by the media, who appear determined to pretend it doesn’t exist.

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