Our man Down Under, Jon Bird, reports from New Zealand in the first of series of articles describing rugby events from a Southern Hemisphere point of view.
Having been a resident in New Zealand now for the past six weeks I have come to terms with the fact that no one does rugby like the Kiwis do rugby. Rugby is everywhere, a way of life and most importantly as a stranger in a new environment, a great topic of debate.
Just walking around Auckland posters of Richie and Dan seem to cover every spare piece of advertising space available and shops have turned what once might have been a clothes display into an All Black shrine and overlooking all this is a big digital clock counting down the seconds to the Rugby World Cup Final. It’s easy to tell that the nation has put all its eggs in one basket and will not accept their players back into the country without the prized Webb Ellis Cup!
Being in New Zealand the match times are highly unsociable with the first match kicking off usually around midnight, then 2am then 4am respectively but either way I wandered down the viaduct at around 10pm on Saturday 8th with vodka red bulls very much being my order of the night for the rugby marathon ahead. With the hopes of the nation riding on the New Zealand players’ backs and their history of choking come World Cup time, I was secretly praying for a less than convincing display from the All Blacks…we all know what happened, it was a rout and the Kiwis were loving it, not the best place to be as the local “pom”.
In fact the first weekend of the world cup was an absolute disaster for northern hemisphere rugby. Not one of the home nations looked convincing, France suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history and Italy were taken to the taxidermist and stuffed. In contrast the southern hemisphere teams played rugby that the northern hemisphere hasn’t seen in years!
The Monday morning did not make good reading for an Englishman, nor any European come to think of it! Papers were covered with any one of the 11 tries New Zealand had scored against Italy. “How’s Hat” read across one broad sheet commenting on Doug Howlett’s hat trick and it seemed that the All Blacks had actually surpassed the expectations of their nation.
The newspapers, although praising their national side also highlighted that the game playing above the equator truly was a “World Apart” from that being played below it. England were perceived to be a “lost” team with no real game plan, aimless passing, poor ball skills (Joe Worsley getting a lot of abuse) and laughable that we had ever been world champions. Andy Farrell is seen as a big joke being described as “one of the slowest centres England has seen and they’ve had a few” and “a workhorse that needs to go to the knacker’s yard”. England are seen to be relying on “the old guard” again and New Zealand love the fact that Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Corry and Mike Catt (who I rate) have all made the cut considering they are miles off the pace for what New Zealand consider to be required for test rugby.
The Kiwi newspapers (quite rightly) predict damage limitation against South Africa, with Samoa being the crunch game. England aren’t seen as a threat and the papers are picking up the fact that all England has to defend it’s poor results is that “we have the ability to upset the big teams” but no one has seen even an ounce of that ability so no one in New Zealand takes any of the comments seriously.
As the weekend draws near the New Zealand press is focusing on England vs. South Africa as no one seems to have time for Portugal. The locals have been winding me up about this Friday’s (Saturday for me) big game and with news of England not having a specialist fly half (first five-eighth over here) the prospect of England overturning South Africa is highly unlikely and I am struggling to defend the lacklustre performances of late. The New Zealanders (or any rugby nation) love to put the English down and who can blame them, now is the perfect opportunity, but I, like any other patriot, would love to be wrong and see us play the rugby Brian Ashton can make us play and I’ll be at the local sports bar at 7am this Saturday morning shouting “come on the Gland!” like any other good rugby supporter should, even if Farrell is at 10!