I write this blog not in my capacity as a news anchor or the host of a business show, but as a New Zealander.
One who knows a bit about the psyche of the country and its extraordinary fascination with rugby, and who started his career as a sports reporter in Auckland almost 13 years ago.
The current backstory, for those of you not so sport-inclined, is that New Zealand’s rugby team – known as the All Blacks – will play France in the final of Rugby World Cup 2011.
The tournament’s been hosted by New Zealand, and there’s more than a little pressure on the home team to win back the Webb Ellis Cup.
I say “more than a little pressure”. Actually it’s a phenomenal amount.
The happiness of a nation almost seems to rest on these next 80 minutes of rugby. If the All Blacks lose, I honestly don’t know what to expect. All I know is that I’ll be glad to be in Doha rather than back home in Auckland.
It sounds like a massive overreaction, and in many ways it is. We see every day in the news what real suffering is all about, and it’s not about losing a game of rugby.
But such is the role that rugby plays in everyday New Zealand life, it becomes much more than a game. Like I said, the happiness of a nation is at stake.
Let me try to explain as best I can.
1. WORLD CUP HISTORY
New Zealand won the inaugural Rugby World Cup back in 1987. In a replay of this year, it was the All Blacks vs France at Eden Park and New Zealand was the convincing winner.
Now it was nowhere near the professional event it is now, but that victory has meant all the more because the All Blacks haven’t won the blessed thing since!
Twenty-four years since the World Cup was in Kiwi hands, and 16 years since the team even made the final.
There were excruciating losses in the semi finals to France in 1999 and Australia in 2003, before the painful embarrassment of being kicked out of the 2007 edition by France (again) in only the quarter finals!
I use emotive words like “excruciating” and “painful” because for the country, that’s what it was.
Each time we were supposed to have THE team that would bring the Cup home. And it never happened. Coaches were sacked, enquiries launched. Just a game? No way.
2. BEST TEAM IN THE WORLD?
New Zealand has an unfortunate record of being regarded as the best rugby team in the world BETWEEN World Cups.
We can blow the opposition off the field for three years, and in the fourth year self-implode on the big stage. The word ‘chokers’ has been used many times.
It’s easy fodder for the rest of the world, who’ve tended to win World Cups through a more dour style of play, rather than the flashy running-rugby the All Blacks employ.
And that’s not a Kiwi being bitter that’s the way it’s happened. And I personally have no issue with teams playing more defensively and less expansively, because in the end all that matters is being ahead on the scoreboard at full time in the final.
That’s if you actually get to the final… (and yes that IS me being bitter!)
3. LIFEBLOOD OF A NATION
There I go again with the hyperbole. Only it’s really not. Rugby is probably the most important thing in New Zealand. It brings people together and energises the nation.
Remember New Zealand is a country of just four million people, way down at the bottom of the world.
And I don’t think I’m going too far to suggest that for some time – perhaps not so much now – there was a bit of an inferiority complex there, particularly with our well-performing neighbour Australia.
But we’re good at our sports down there – particularly rugby – which is why the fortunes of the All Blacks play such a role in the country’s social fabric.
Kids learn to play rugby from a very young age – soccer, as we call it, barely gets a look-in. And the haka? The Maori war dance/challenge performed by the All Blacks before a match?
Well we don’t quite have haka lessons in school, but we might as well. I’ve known the words and actions for as long as I can remember!
The team is revered, there is an aura surrounding the famous black jersey, and a team loss is a personal one for everyone.
4. UNHEALTHY OBSESSION
Now I don’t necessarily think that mentality is a good thing. As a sports reporter for TV3 News in New Zealand in the late 90s and early 2000s, I saw first-hand the unsocial sides of the rugby fascination.
One was the players themselves. Certainly back then, a lot of them seemed to believe the hype.
They weren’t forthcoming with the media or the fans. They didn’t seem to acknowledge just how important they were to the people … or perhaps they did, and as such though they could act in a way that put themselves above the people.
I personally had a very unpleasant run-in with the All Blacks manager at the time (not the coach) which I felt showed the superiority he was holding over me, as a journalist and as a person.
The other social ill I saw was the unhealthy nature of the public’s obsession with rugby.
When the All Blacks lost to France in the 1999 semi-final, it was a real shock. But then so was the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 off the coast of Massachusetts which killed all 217 people on board.
Those two events happened on the same day … but guess one was considered more important by the media and people? Yes, 15 members of a losing rugby team led our news bulletin that night. The 217 dead people came later.
Now this is possibly my ‘world news agenda’ coming through after six years at Al Jazeera English, but to me the plane crash was the more important story.
I remember thinking that at the time too, but also acknowledging that in a local market the All Blacks would win the day, even when they lost. Actually, especially when they lost.
Worse was to follow when the team returned home.
Coach John Hart resigned almost immediately, but became the target of some of the more unsavoury members of society.
Cans of beer were thrown at his house, and he was spat on when he attended a horse-racing event. Ugly incidents and entirely without good reason. I’m dearly hoping things have changed since then. I’m sure they have.
5. 80 MINUTES TILL GLORY
So in conclusion, the All Blacks need to win this World Cup. For themselves, for the fans. There probably won’t ever be another World Cup held in New Zealand the event’s just growing too big for the size of the country.
So this is the big chance. Win in front of your home crowd and fulfill your destiny. Make a country happy … one which has seen a fair bit of sadness in the last year, with the Pike River mining disaster and the dual earthquakes in Christchurch.
But if the All Blacks lose – and I’m talking to the public here – deal with it. It’s a shame, it’s another four years of waiting, but it’s not the end of the world. It IS, in the end, just a game.
That said, I’ll be cheering as hard as any Kiwi from here in Doha, and willing those 15 men in black to bring the Cup home. Because the result of that will be something for all of us to celebrate.
Kia Kaha, New Zealand. Be strong