Another rip snorter of a weekend in Dunedin and this time we had a half-decent performance by England to celebrate. Once again the atmosphere at and around the stadium was fantastic.
We spent the afternoon in the lead up to the game trying to make sure that Justin, on his birthday, would remember as little about the game as possible but, contrary to recent form he actually equipped himself rather well. The Octagon, the central part of the city, quickly filled up with England supporters and Kiwis in full Romanian gear, faces painted, wrapped in flags and donning shirts. A pretty vocal bunch they were too, until you asked them where precisely Romania is and to name three facts about the country. Then they piped down a bit.
England performed considerably better than in their previous games without ever quite convincing that they would pose a threat to more accomplished opposition. There were still too many penalties and sloppy mistakes and Tindall was very lateral at 12 but it was good to see the outside backs get plenty of opportunities and take many of them.
Then it was on to Otago University Rugby Club for the big one between New Zealand and France. The obvious thing for an England supporter to have wanted was a Kiwi victory to direct us to an easier quarter final. But even when all logic pointed that way it was quite hard to do so when surrounded by people who were so immersed in the Cult of the All Blacks and so dismissive of any rugby barring their own.
It also meant it took a bit of time before we could appreciate that we were watching a performance which far outstripped anything we had seen in the tournament to date. It will take a shock to match any we have seen in past tournaments to stop the Kiwi juggernaut and the locals have pretty much written everyone else off already.
It’s fair to say that the Kiwis do not have a particularly high opinion of Northern Hemisphere rugby, characterising it as dull, slow and forward-based. That is the generally accepted view here and you will find very few locals prepared to speak up against it.
But dig a little deeper and you find that such a dismissive, sweeping generalisation is based upon really not very much at all. So deep-rooted are these views that the majority of New Zealanders to whom we have spoken do not actually watch any Northern Hemisphere rugby at all. The Six Nations is pretty much the only European rugby which gets shown down here and even the most ardent apologist for the tournament would admit that it has produced some rather turgid fare in the past few seasons. The magnificent Heineken Cup barely seems to register.
The only team they have any regard for is France, purely because the French have beaten them in a couple of big games. They have little idea that France have been a shambles for the past 18 months, many don’t know that England are Six Nations champions and one of the newspapers described Ireland as a ‘World Cup curiosity’. You get the feeling that if New Zealand don’t win the tournament they will consider that the game of rugby is flawed rather than their own team.
This is not designed to be an attack on the Kiwis. They have been generous and nigh on faultless in their hospitality and the way in which they have embraced teams and matches in which their side has not been involved. And clearly there are many exceptions to the above observations. But this is not the country of rugby experts many believe, they are a country of absolute experts on New Zealand rugby (and every single person bar none has an informed opinion on this). This enables the rest of us to take their brash confidence with a pinch of salt – unless of course their team run away with the tournament in which case a tip of the cap and humble pie all round.
Sunday was spent in the pub recovering from the Saturday and taking in all the day’s matches. The highlight was the Scotland v Argentina affair which made up in nail-biting tension what it perhaps lacked in out and out quality. I have always had a soft spot for the Argies and think it is good for the game for teams outside the old Five Nation and Tri-Nations to make the knock out stages although you have to feel for the Scots. It has set up a hell of a match for this weekend, one about which I must confess to being decidedly nervous.
This week has been another tough one with a horseback tour of the Lord of the Rings set, kayaking in the astonishing beauty of Milford Sound and I think I have a sky dive booked in for tomorrow. Hutch’s wife, Emily has joined our tour party and has dealt faultlessly with having had to watch no fewer than 4 rugby matches within 30 hours of her arrival. We can assure her that there is more where they came from.
No match for us this weekend. We will watch the England v Scotland game and the rest of the weekend’s rugby from Wanaka on the South Island as we spend two weeks travelling up to Auckland in time for the quarters.