The Tri-Nations finally reaches its climax this weekend with a return of the unbeaten All Blacks, who have been stringing together some ominous performances a year before the Rugby World Cup. Here we have an amusing guest article from Lee Bagshaw about the trials and tribulations of living with a New Zealander.
First, I need to make it clear. I am English and support England at rugby. My wife is a Kiwi and supports that lot in black. They’re not bad either.
Living with an All Black supporter brings with it inevitable tension, drama, the odd bit of gloating and a few tears, normally every four years. The early morning rises for Tri-Nations matches in New Zealand are not ideal but the rugby played by the three best teams in the world makes the Six Nations look like it is from another planet not just a different hemisphere. The sports writers up here like to talk a good game. But for all the whinging about Experimental Law Variations and Richie McCaw consistently infringing at the breakdown, most know the reality. We are playing catch up.
In truth I have had a fascination with the All Blacks from my early days of watching rugby mesmerised as I was by the Haka and then extraordinary players such as John Kirwan and then Jonah Lomu. At the time, New Zealand seemed a world away. Having now spent some time there, I understand the minds of this rugby-obsessed population of four million coaches who all know best. What is often interpreted as arrogance and ungraciousness in defeat is actually masking a completely different emotion. Sheer terror of losing.
I have never asked my wife the question nor indeed any Kiwi but I half expect New Zealanders wish the World Cup had never been established. On they would merrily go, collecting Tri-Nation titles and northern hemisphere scalps, reigning supreme as the world’s number one team. Damn that pesky tournament every four years at which everyone wants us to fail.
The statistics are astonishing for a nation of only 4 million people. The fact is that the All Blacks historically win nearly 75% of the time and only Australia and South Africa have restricted New Zealand to win percentages of less than 70%. It is only when you try and equate that with other fine sporting nations do you appreciate the enormity of the All Black legacy.
Try Australia at cricket for instance. Their historic win percentage? Only 47%. England have beaten New Zealand only six times in over a hundred years and sadly for me not once since I met my wife in late 2003. Given that record and if indeed I am the bad luck charm, I wonder sometimes if my wife wished that I was French.
In some ways, New Zealand’s failure to win the World Cup since 1987 adds to the All Black story. Like Brazil at football, they are more often than not the best team and the pressure on them is unbearable. The rest of us cannot help but smile when it does not work out for them. The truth is that knock-out tournament sport has always been about fine margins and no shortage of good fortune. The Rugby World Cup is no different.
Timing in sport is everything too. When Dame Kelly Holmes won the 800m and 1500m gold medals at the Athens Olympics it was not just the 200m sprint of the final bend of each race which Holmes got right. It was her whole 15 year career, full of potential, injury, disappointment and fulfilment timed to perfection in that one month of August 2004. Call it good fortune but she arrived on the biggest stage of all in the best form of her life. And then she delivered.
In just over a year, the All Blacks will try and deliver on the biggest stage in their own back yard. Heaven knows what my wife will do if New Zealand don’t win it. Probably go into hiding to avoid the inevitable comments of “you’ve bottled it again.”
For me, if England don’t win it, and let’s be fair that is looking unlikely, I hope the All Blacks finally do and not just for some peace in the house. If your own team cannot win it, then surely you should hope the best team does. That’s what makes sport truly special and gives tournaments legitimacy. Of course, whether New Zealand are still the best team in 12 months’ time remains to be seen. One thing is for sure. They’ll be favourites and be expected to win it, not least by those 4 million coaches watching on.
I suspect the next generation of rugby followers will not recall who won the 2010 Tri-Nations. They will almost certainly remember the winners of the 2011 World Cup, particularly if it is not New Zealand I suspect. And yet, when my wife and I sat down to watch the All Blacks’ last outing, that thrilling game in Johannesburg, there was a silent, nervous concentration for 60 minutes, a claim that now might be a good time to “get a defeat out of the way” at about 70 minutes when South Africa led, followed by jubilation at 80 minutes as Israel Dagg ran in the winning try. A dead rubber this Saturday in Sydney? Don’t bet on it. Winning at any time is important for Kiwis, not just every four years.
“I hope you’re not peaking too early again,” I had asked after the South Africa game, as I do after every All Black victory.
“Better to peak too early than never peak at all” was her response. A fair point indeed.
By Lee Bagshaw