It’s 4:30 AM on Sunday morning when we meet our neighbors at the local watering hole, Latitude 37, a bar and restaurant in Mount Maunganui. Usually the streets are quiet and empty on a Sunday morning. But this morning is different. Traffic is brisk and sidewalks are filled with people. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the entire country of New Zealand is awake today at this ungodly hour.
It is the Rugby World Cup 2015 final and New Zealand’s premier national team, the All Blacks, are playing. To make it all the more poignant, today we are playing archrival Australia from across the ‘ditch’ in the final.
The game is being played in London—hence, the ungodly hour. New Zealand won the World Cup in 2011 and hopes to repeat. We had been up at 3:30 AM the previous Sunday watching the semifinal against South Africa at our neighbor’s house.
But today is different. If New Zealand loses, my neighbor, a old rugby player himself, tells me, the entire country will go into a deep, dark depression for a number of weeks. A sort of mini-recession will occur. He’s an accountant. “And nobody will buy any f—in’ refrigerators or anything else,” he continues. It will not be good.
It is hard to know exactly where to begin when talking about rugby in New Zealand. Suffice it to say— rugby is religion in New Zealand and the All Blacks are gods. People live, eat, sleep, breathe rugby. Small children seemingly barely able to walk play with rugby balls. School children toss rugby balls back and forth on their way to school. Families play mini rugby games on the beach in the summer. It is played in all schools at all levels. There are several different professional leagues.
But at the pinnacle of the sport, way up there in the sports stars stratosphere are the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team. Most every Kiwi can name and relate the exploits of individual players from the pantheon of All Black gods from years gone by. It is really quite amazing that a small country like New Zealand (population 4.5 million) can achieve such consistent success in any sport on the world-wide stage. But they have and they do.
Several stories are related to how the All Blacks obtained their name. A common one is that an English reporter said that New Zealand’s rugby team played like “all backs” (a player position) during their visit to the UK in 1905. An ‘l’ was inadvertently inserted and “all backs” became “all blacks.” A more accurate story is that in earlier times teams were to referred to by the colors they wore. In 1899 a New Zealand reporter is documented to have first referred to a New Zealand rugby team as “all blacks” from the black uniforms.
Similar to many other New Zealand things, the All Blacks players seem like, and they are, just a good bunch of guys (or a good bunch of ‘lads’, as one might say here). They certainly always play as a team. There are no big egos. There is never any showboating in front of the cameras, and no big drama behind the scenes. They play hard, terribly hard—rugby is a very physical game with no protection whatsoever unlike American football. They play for the country of New Zealand, their island nation, and they take that responsibility and honor very seriously.
Inside the bar, the crowd is electric. Fortunately, our neighbor was able to reserve us seats at the table directly in front of the giant screen. Matthew, my 17-year old son, has even joined us. Do know how hard it is to get 17-year olds to wake up by 11 AM on weekends, let alone 4:30? But it is a once in a lifetime event and he is excited.
We, like most of the other fans, are decked out in All Blacks shirts and other items. Coffee for now—champagne if New Zealand wins.
Rugby is a strange game. A game is called a test. To score, that is to move the ball over the opponent’s goal line, is to score a try. The game is played continuously over two forty-minute halves with a ten-minute break at halftime. Over the past year I’ve learned many of the nuances of the game.
The game starts slowly. After 39 minutes, New Zealand leads by only 9-3 due to three penalty kicks by Dan Carter. Then in the final minute of the first half, Nehe Milner-Skudder scores a try (the crowd in the bar goes CRAZY!), and Carter converts the extra point allowing the All Blacks to go into the locker room at halftime with a 16-3 lead. Two minutes into the second half, Ma’a Nonu scores a try extending the New Zealand lead to 21-3. Things are looking good for the All Blacks!
But then a New Zealand player, Ben Smith, is yellow carded and put in the sin bin (penalty box). New Zealand will have to play one-player down for ten minutes. Australia’s David Pocock scores a try and then Tevita Kuridrani scores another try putting the Aussies within 4 points with 16 minutes remaining. Our crowd has grown suddenly quiet. We have ordered brekkie (breakfast); it grows cold on our plates. Could the dreaded Aussies come back and steal this game? Then with ten minutes on the clock, Dan Carter scores a drop goal from 40 meters out (you can drop kick the ball between the uprights from anywhere on the field and score three points). The momentum changes back to New Zealand. Another penalty goal extends New Zealand’s lead to 10. Finally, while attempting to score quickly, Australia loses the ball and All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett scores a final try for a score of 34-17. NEW ZEALAND’S ALL BLACKS HAVE WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP!
Just as it may be hard to imagine an entire country waking up at 4 AM to watch a rugby match, it is hard to fathom the effect of this win here in New Zealand. As we walk home, the sun is now shining and the birds are singing. It’s spring here and the weather is glorious. And although the day is barely beginning, it is already a most perfect day in New Zealand.