Me, New Zealand, and Rugby (you know that game kinda like football but with no pads, no timeouts, and no touchdown dances)
I did a guest post over at Lissa Kasey place last week. It’s about rugby and a bit about being an expat American in New Zealand.
Me, New Zealand, and Rugby (you know that game kinda like football but with no pads, no timeouts, and no touchdown dances)
The field was muddy before the first cleats hit the grass. The white lines are already half washed away but everyone knows where they are by pure instinct. The rain makes for more fumbles but a wet field is less painful to play on. For 80 minutes thirty guys, half sponsored by the local pub, the other half by a hardware store the next town over, clash their bodies together trying to get an egg shaped ball over a white line. There are no pads, no timeouts, just a break half way through for guys a decade past any hope of a national call-up to catch their breaths. They throw their bodies around the field like it’s a World Cup final all to have their team name on a cheap brass plaque, named after some native son whose deeds have long since been forgotten.
A week, an island, and a world away Eden Park, in the center of Auckland, is filled with 50,000 fans, 45,000 dressed in black. This year’s team Jockey ads are on the side of busses and the big screens are showing the team’s newest PowerAde spot. In the changing room a 21 year old kid is pulling on the black jersey for the first time and trying not to throw up, but he will cry during God Defend New Zealand, and get four minutes of play time while one of the veteran players has flowing blood washed out of his eyes on the sideline.
This is rugby, or at least rugby in New Zealand.
I moved to New Zealand for graduate school on a manic whim in 2005 having never visited the country and knowing nothing about it. I had only planned on staying two years. That was a decade, partner, kid, and mortgage ago.
One of the many things I didn’t know about New Zealand and one of the first things I learned was the national obsession with rugby. A country of only four and a half million people, 40 million sheep, and their national side, The All Blacks, hold pretty much every major international rugby trophy available to them. The coach and top players are household names. The current team captain turned down a knighthood. Each Test match is front page news the next day. A loss at the wrong moment can swing an election. Ask any little boy what he wants to be when he grows up and the answer is an All Black (except for the skinny kid with thick glasses who wants to be a spin bowler like Daniel Vittori).
I was recently flipping through a half deteriorated notebook that was intended to document my first year of graduate school and found some early thoughts on rugby. When I first moved to New Zealand I was right around the corner from Eden Park, the grand cathedral of New Zealand rugby, not that I knew this. When a classmate, a soft spoken little country girl, found out where I lived she invited/insisted that I come to a rugby game with her, especially since her home team was playing.
It was Waikato verses Auckland. The stadium wasn’t even half full and I have absolutely no memory of who won, (though my notebook says 28-7) I just remember spending 80 minutes supremely confused and saying ‘Oh my god is that legal?!’ a lot, while that quiet little country girl screamed at the top of her lungs. A decade later it’s more ‘What the hell, he was nowhere near that guy’s neck and it was a blatant forward pass what the fuck is the ref smoking?!’
I was not a sports fan growing up mainly because I was bad at all sports and the kids who picked on me at school the most were the jocks. I went to that Auckland/Waikato game more out of manners. I was anticipating the general boredom that enveloped me during the constant stop/start of a football game. I was not expecting to enjoy it. I was not expecting to leave still utterly confused but with a strangely exhilarated feeling as though I had fed off both the energy of the fans and the almost non-stop flow of the players.
I had no clue going into that little rugby match what I’d stepped into and what I would become.
If you’re an American like me there are good odds you know rugby as ‘That Game Kinda Like Football’. And it is, sort of, a little, not really. The field is a similar shape and size and there are polls at each end.
There are no pads, so when a 6 foot, 200 pound fullback crashes into a 6 foot 7 inch, 250 pound lock, that is flesh and bone hitting flesh and bone. You can hear the bodies collide from the other side of the field.
There are no timeouts. When that fullback and that lock crash into each other they are meant to get right back up and keep going. There is no taking a knee at the last 30 seconds to decide a play. When the ball hits the ground nothing stops, it’s just free for the next person to grab it. The clock stops only if an injured player can’t get off the field under their own power. If one goes down and they’re still awake the clock and the game keep going while team medics try to patch up the fallen right there on the grass.
There are also no touchdown dances.
A few months after that little Auckland/Waikato game the British and Irish Lions Rugby Union team toured New Zealand for the first time in over ten years and for the first time I saw truly good rugby. I never go to bars yet for each of the three test matches I found myself, through one new friend or another, crammed in shoulder to shoulder in some pub, slightly drunk, shouting at the TV over a game I still didn’t fully understand and occasionally asking questions like ‘is it legal to step on someone’s head’.
It’s a brutal game, rugby, no one will argue different, but when done right, like I saw for the first time on that tour, there can be a fast flowing grace to it as if entire teams are mind melded together. A dozen perfect passes from one end of the field to another, each player dancing around defense, or taking the hits, passing the ball at the last second, with the final player sliding over the line, under the polls for a perfect Try is an amazing thing. It gets the heart pounding, and even if you don’t know what’s going on there is an urge to jump to the feet with a shout and a cheer because beauty is an easy thing to recognize.
A conversion (kick for two points) going through the polls in the 80mph wind gusts of Wellington can seem like the act of a benevolent rugby god.
A perfectly executed line-out involves throwing 200 pound halfbacks into the air like ballerinas.
A scrum- well a scrum looks like sixteen guys trying to lay an egg and there are so many rules involved half the time the refs are just making it up.
But did I mention no touchdown dances?
Between the second and third test match of that tour terrorists hit the London transport system. Players and fans sat in hotel rooms and rented campers trying to get calls through, and for one minute before the start of the third test every pub in New Zealand, for possibly the first time in history, was actually silent.
All three games went to New Zealand but the Lions made them fight for it, and as I shouted my throat raw with the rest I started to understand how an entire country can hold true unwavering passion for one team.
I learned to truly understand and appreciate the finer details of rugby during a crappy, dull, soul sucking job that had me stuck in a tiny room for 8 to 10 hours at a stretch with a bunch of sports mad guys. (I also learned to appreciate cricket but that’s another discussion). It was a matter of survival, and perhaps a little Stockholm syndrome that had me glued to a tiny TV we weren’t supposed to have, analyzing every second of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Not that the guys in the office cared but the USA Rugby Eagles played well that year and lost every game.
Oh yeah, side note, America has a national rugby team. We are currently ranked 16th in the world (one up from the last time I checked), in-between Georgia and Romania. We are currently the reigning Olympic champions in rugby, though I should mention that it hasn’t been played at the Olympics since 1924. We have a national men’s team, a national Sevens team, (Sevens is a smaller and shorter form of the game), an under 20 team, a women’s team, and a women’s Sevens team. Sevens is going to be played at the Rio Olympics for the first time and I think the Women’s Sevens have a good chance at bronze, probably coming in under New Zealand and England. They’re all on Twitter, go follow them.
And while we’re here there is no reason why we should be 16th in the world. We have thousands upon thousands of college football players who don’t make the NFL every year who should be perfectly capable of throwing off the pads, upping their stamina (because no timeouts), and kicking ass in the game.
Anyway back to the 2007 Rugby World Cup and that cruddy little office. The US was in a death pool with South Africa, England, Tonga, and Samoa. We did not stand a chance. We did get two Tries against South Africa which is pretty damn impressive. Actually really fucking impressive. My first psychiatrist was South African and he brought up the way Takudzwa Ngwenya danced past Bryan Habana in that game in our first session in 2010. (You can find the game on YouTube, the try is about 37 minutes in.)
There are vast Wikipedia articles explaining the mechanics of the game in detail if you’re interested but what the articles don’t describe are things like the noise of the crowds. Not the way they cheer but the way they go silent. Each game starts with a roar then within the first few seconds everything goes quiet, pub or stadium, there is focus, sharp eyes not just tracking the ball but all 30 players and the ref. There is no need or reason to make a sound until a player breaks away, sprinting for his try line, the fans raising their voices the faster he goes. A cheer for the try, another for the conversion, then quiet again.
The Cup was the first time I’d noticed this and still love it.
That year I started to develop opinions on the game. It’s hard not to have them when it’s all you hear about at work and it blankets the evening news. The primary thing to have an opinion on that year was the All Black’s rest and rotation policy which is still criticized as the thing that got the All Blacks knocked out of the quarterfinals by France. My opinion was that it didn’t help but previous world cup losses and the fear of more simply weighed the team down until they choked at the wrong moment.
Yes, I had opinions. This was about the same time I was trying to convert my student visa into a long term work visa. When it hit a snag I mentioned in my pleading letter to Immigration that I now enjoyed rugby and had managed to learn the rules of cricket and that had to count for something. I’m not sure if it helped. I like to think it did.
After that I fell into the general joys of being a fan. If you’re a fan of anything, not just sports, you understand. It’s a thing that lets you strike up conversations with complete strangers, to form connections with people you might otherwise pass by. In New Zealand it’s probably the quickest form of cultural integration. Wearing an official All Blacks jersey is nearly as good as pulling out your passport and presenting your visas and permits. Being able to carry on a conversation about the state of Richie McCaw’s knees is always a bonus.
Of course I’m one of those poor sods who’s a glutton for punishment. Where’s the fun in pulling for a team that has world record winning streaks and in over a century has only lost games to five other countries?
Time for the USA Eagles and the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
I always used to mock people who would follow their team around to other states or even countries. That’s what TV was invented for. Then the World Cup came to New Zealand and I plunked down 570 bucks to follow around a team that was almost guaranteed to lose every game. I justified it as a bit of nationalism and that someone needed to come out for the USA since they weren’t going to be bringing many fan with them.
But to be honest, by this point, I wanted the experience. I wanted to see hard fought rugby, pulling for the little team with pride. I knitted a truly awful red, white, and blue scarf that made me look like I was with the French. I drove through the pouring rain, getting lost in Hamilton, to watch USA v Russia at the little Yarrow Stadium. The USA actually won. The field was more mud than grass. The rain was verging on becoming sleet. If it was just Americans and Russians there would have been a hundred people there, instead New Plymouth came out just to watch two bottom of the table teams play a game they loved.
I risked flying into Wellington to watch the USA get slaughtered by a cranky Australia, and risked flying out of Wellington to see the USA v Italy game (which the US should have won but the ref had his own interpretations of offside and advantage rules).
It was freezing. It was awesome. It was exhilarating and disappointing. It was like the best fandom convention with mud, beer, and lots of shouting. People weren’t just there to support their team; they were there for the game itself in all its fast, brutal, graceful, glory.
8 June, 2013 – Baby’s First Rugby Game, 14 days old. New Zealand v France, Eden Park, 23-13. Watched at grandma’s house from Dad’s lap.
It’s World Cup time again. USA is in Pool B against South Africa, Samoa, Japan, and Scotland. South Africa would have to be completely stoned to lose. Samoa could go either way. Japan we stand a chance. Scotland is a probable loss but it could be close.
New Zealand is in Pool C against Argentina, Tonga, Georgia, and Namibia. Argentina might give them a run but that’s about it. I’ll watch anyway. It’s being hosted in England so I’ll be getting up at strange hours. I might knit a new scarf to wear at the pub at five in the morning with a handful of expats who have also learned to enjoy the true beauty that is rugby.