Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rugby: It’s been no bed of roses

I started suffering a terrible case of acidic stomach a couple of weeks ago and started chewing on the antacids like they were candy in a bid to calm things down.

My lovely wife suggested that it was stress induced, but that didn’t make any sense at first. I’m happily married, I love my job (and she loves hers), we’re minimum wage kids making all right money for the first time in our lives, planning to do a bit more travel before inevitable settling down, I’m living in a city with an extraordinary access to my favourite comics and movies and books, and with my work shifts I get to sleep in every single morning. Life is good.

But I was still stressed, and it didn’t take me long to figure out what was wrong.

It was the rugby.

It’s always been the rugby.

Rugby is mysport and the All Blacks are my team, which means the Rugby World Cup is a Big Fucking Deal for me. Held every four years and routinely ignored by most of the globe who have other passions (mainly football), the World Cup is weeks and weeks of solid rugby.

It’s a terrific sport – lots of hard running, tactical thought, massive kicks, crunching tackles and a rich history of triumph, tragedy and big games. The World Cup is all that in a space of less than two months.

Like all the other tournaments, stretching back to the first in 1987, there were all sorts of upsets and pleasant surprises at the 2011 show, with Ireland overcoming Australia and the mighty French going down to the mightier Tongans. There was high drama on and off the field, and some great tackles that could be heard from space.

As the weeks went on in the 2011 tournament, it got more and more stressful, because New Zealand does not have a strong World Cup winning rate. While the overall number of winning matches reaches Harlem Globetrotter rates, the All Blacks had not won a World Cup since the inaugural 1987 one.

They were almost always the absolute favourites going into the tournaments between 1991 and 2007, but were bundled out by Australia, South Africa, France, Australia again and the France again.

There were a tonne of reasons why they lost, but ultimately, they just weren’t good enough.

I can’t remember the first time that New Zealand won the World Cup, even though I was 12 at the time.  But I can remember every place I was every time the All Blacks lost at the tournament since then.

I was at my cousin Leilani’s place in 1991, and sitting alone on the mattress at my first ever flat in Dunedin for the 1995 final. I was with my best mates in Timaru for the 1999 and 2003 semi-final losses, and was alone again in an all new city for the 2007 heartbreaker.

I was genuinely bummed out after each of these losses, and it lasted for weeks and weeks. I never cared about any sport that much.

I’ve got tonnes of friends who are a bit intellectual, and more than a little nerd-ish, and they all laughed at me when I tell them how depressed I got after the other World Cups.

It’s just a game. It’s just a bunch of men running around a paddock. It doesn’t mean anything. I have friends – trueborn Kiwis – who told me they wanted the All Blacks to lose because it might have an effect on an upcoming general election.

I told them all - with all due respect - to get fucked. Even though I can totally see where they are coming from, I don’t think like that, because I’m still convinced that sport is a Great Big Metaphor For Everything.

It is possible to take a step back and sneer at the tight shorts, or take a step forward and immersive yourself in the narrative. Sport is full of real tragedy and farce and action and betrayal and displays of remarkable physical strength and incredible surprise and triumph and doses of the utter unexpected, and if that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, you’re missing out on some of the finer things in life.

All of this is there at the local clubs, and when blasted upwards into a global event, it’s an incredible thing to witness. All the foibles and marvels of humanity play out on the rugby pitch, and you never know what might happen next.

This year, the biggest games of the Rugby World Cup were being played about six blocks from my home, which was pretty damn convenient. I got trapped by the masses that gathered for the opening night on Auckland’s waterfront, and watched about 80 per cent of the games (though I never missed any highlights.)

We only went to one – a scrambling affair between Samoa and Fiji at Eden Park, but we were there to soak up the atmosphere, not to be bothered by the quality of the game.

I started feeling genuinely stressed just before the Argentina game in the quarter finals. On paper, it was no contest between the teams, but this is knock-out time, when anything could happen. And frequently does.

The All Blacks whipped out their meanest Haka and put the Argentina team away, and were even better against the Australians in the semis – rattling poor old Quade Cooper and keeping the pressure right on from start to finish.

That put New Zealand into the first final in 16 years, which meant the job was nearly done. I think I burned through an annual allocation of stress in the weeks leading up to the Australia game, and it was the French in the final. The French, who had lost to Tonga and already been soundly beaten by New Zealand. France could barely beat Wales when it was cut to a 14-man team, and there was constant talk of team unhappiness.

But it was the French, and they never play better than when they’re up against the wall, playing a quality team.

And it was the all Blacks playing the French, just like in 1987, and the signs all pointed to an easy win. New Zealand had suffered the loss of key playmakers, and then their replacements also started falling over, but they had picked themselves up and carried on. Under unimaginable pressure to win, they kept calm.

Next year’s allocation of stress was all used up in the dying 20 minutes of the World Cup final, when the French were playing the game of their lives, breaking through the All Black defence and bringing the lead down to a single solitary point. One mistake, one silly move and it could all be over for everybody.

And then it was down to two minutes, and they had the ball, and they just kept recycling the hell out of it until there was no more time on the clock, and then it was over, and they had won.

One point will do.

Like all the best sports tales, you couldn’t write this as a fictional story because nobody would ever believe it – key playmaker Dan Carter goes down with a completely unprecedented groin injury, captain Richie McCaw’s foot is shot to hell, but he plays on. Poor Piri Weepu plays his best game ever, and then is told his grandfather has just died. (He goes on to have a shocker in the final.)

And all in front of a home crowd who need some goddamn good news after a year of economic doldrums, tragic mine disasters and catastrophic earthquakes, they pulled it off. We’ve officially got the best rugby team in the world, and while that doesn’t do anything to lessen the pain of these other hardships, we’ll take all the good vibes we can get.

It’s two days after that, and I’m still bloody hungover, but fortunately the day after the final was a public holiday, so everybody got to celebrate.

I was up and about less than eight hours after the final had been won, horribly tired and with a motherfucker of a hangover just coming on. But I didn’t want to lie down and sleep at all and kept going for hours.

Later in the day after the final, I went down to the Auckland CBD with about 200,000 other people and we all cheered out lungs out at a team parade and it was great.

When Brad Thorne thrust the World Cup in my direction, I might have got a bit emotional.

I think I’ll remember where I was when we won this one.

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