Rugby runs deep in New Zealand. It is the game that tackled the kiwi imagination in the 1880s, and never let go.
There’s an old English saying that football (soccer) is a game for gentlemen played by thugs, and that rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen.
But that’s the English class system for you: in New Zealand, rugby is simply the game for everyone. Partly that’s because there is a place for every body size and shape. Short and squat and strong become hookers and props. Short and fast and loud become halfbacks. Lanky and fast are in the backs. Tall and big and fast become the highway juggernauts on the wing.
I have a theory that this is the reason why rugby became New Zealand’s dominant sport in the late 19th century. Small villages and towns had just enough young men for a couple of 15-a-side rugby teams if everyone played. So everyone played this one game.
And it’s why rugby in New Zealand has always been inclusive. Maori or Pakeha or Pasifika, Catholic or Protestant or Ratana or agnostic or atheist, rich or poor, gay or straight, we do not care. The only thing that matters is how well you can catch and pass and carry and kick that ball.
It’s a single-minded attitude that gets results. Our national team, the All Blacks, have a winning record of more than 80 percent over the last 130 years. Only six teams have ever beaten the All Blacks in a test match (Australia, South Africa, France, England, Wales and the British Lions).
We expect to win every test match. After winning the first World Cup in 1987, we lost the next five, before winning it again in 2011. Each of those losses provoked an Old Testament response: rending of garments, calls for public stonings, deep introspection about our multitude of sins. Rugby runs deep.
The actual difference between football and rugby is that the former is a simple game, but rugby is a very technical game. When you watch your first game, believe me, you will have no idea what is going on. Every part of the game is governed by laws (not ‘rules’) that have to be interpreted by the referee in split-second judgment.
But the crowd around you will understand (or at least have their own totally impartial and just opinions), so listen to them yell advice to the ref, scream for a penalty, roar with excitement and sigh with disappointment.
One of the greatest rugby players of all time is John Eales. Despite having the great misfortune of being born Australian, and therefore only able to play for the Wallabies rather than the All Blacks, he was a wonderfully talented and thoughtful lock forward and captain. I once had the great misery of watching him guide the Wallabies up the field in the last minutes of a test match against the All Blacks, sucker a penalty from the ref, and then personally kick the winning goal from halfway. Ouch.
Anyway, Eales is credited with one of the great rugby and life truths: “At any particular moment on a rugby field, you are either useful or you are useless.”
His point was that even if you don’t have the ball right now, you need to be getting yourself into a position where you can do something soon. So when you’re watching a game, spend some time just following a single player rather than watching the ball. You’ll see how the best ones are always trying to put themselves into a useful position. You’ll get a sense of how they are seeing the game unfold.
You’ll see that it’s an intense drama composed on the fly by thirty men or women wrestling the narrative this way and that. It’s ballet with tackling, a symphony of physicality.
It’s why football might be The Beautiful Game, but rugby is The Game They Play In Heaven.
Many thanks to our contributor, Ned Davy. He is a Wellington-based writer who dreams of one day playing for the All Blacks, and is Kate's brother-in-law.