I have never been more determined to become a part of this country and its culture than I was on Sunday night.
First off, let me say that my time in Queenstown was massively awesome and there will be a further post on that, and the whole experience to come later. But for now, I have to talk about Sunday night.
For those of you that don’t live in the world of sports, or actually in New Zealand or any of the other ‘major’ team countries, this year was the Rugby World Cup. And it is a huge huge huge thing down here. I don’t think I could even come up with a comparison that would make sense in the US levels of huge. Possibly Huge like ice hockey is huge in Michigan. Or high school football in Texas. But even that can’t quite cover the obsessiveness that has come about over Rugby down here.
Now, I am not an expert, or even a beginner expert. I know that there are different levels of play, different leagues, and I know that there are ways to divide the country (like canterbury versus auckland or something), but I’m still learning the ropes. I can very well, and probably will, say something completely wrong about this but I’m giving my observations and opinions on a short window of exposure. So, bear with me.
The Overall attitude down here during this World Cup has been astounding. Teams from around the world came here (including the USA! Go Eagles!) to play in pool challenges. And then after the Pool stages were over (the US didn’t get past the Pools, but we did beat Russia!), we got into the really exciting games. The semis and the quarters and the final.
And let me tell you, as the weeks got closer and closer to the end of the Pools and the start of the actual ‘tournament’ part of it, this country got more and more united. Black signs everywhere. People with those flags flying from their cars with the NZ flag and the All Blacks flag, and pretty much everything else all became about the Rugby. Everybody was ‘Backing Black’ in some way or another and the energy in this country was astounding. There really is no way to explain an entire country coming together behind one team.
And no, the Olympis don’t really count. Well, Maybe for the Dream Team. I would say that it was close to the 1980 US Hockey team, but they were the underdogs. The All Blacks are definitely not the underdogs. They are supposed to be the best rugby (of this league) team in the world. So, yeah, let’s go with Dream Team for US Basketball as an analogy. But even that analogy doesn’t quite work. The Dream Team had national backing, but only if you cared about basketball, and only if you cared about the Olympics. And frankly, not enough of the US does either of those at all.
No, this is close to the Dream Team but amplified on a scale well past it. Well past it. The Semi-final game against Australia was billed as “The Final” because there was no way that France should have beaten Wales. They had played so sloppily all tournament, there was no way that they could be a match for the mighty mighty All Blacks. But France did beat Wales, and the ABs got past the Wallabies, and here you have it, The Final.
New Zealand vs France
Now, there are some rather epic backstories to this rivalry, and I can’t even begin to explain them all. I’m sure that somebody else is more than happy to fill them in, but the relations between France and NZ have been strained at times in the past. There was a Rugby match sometime back in the 90s that NZ was expected to win handily, but the French came out victorious. Then there’s the Rainbow Warrior incident, and I’m fairly sure that there was another incident that was explained to me this weekend, but in all of the excitement, some of it has gotten lost in memory of wine and lack of sleep.
Suffice to say, emotions were running high for this match. It’s a holiday weekend down here, with monday being a national holiday and pretty much everybody in the country having the day off. So the Final was on Sunday night, and we were on holiday with some friends down in Queenstown. One of our friends is a huge rugby fan and was insisting that we go to the pub to watch the game. Any pub.
At first, I resisted, but my god am I glad that I didn’t.
A bit more background, this a bit more personal. I don’t usually like pubs. Or loud places. Or places with people drinking. Or loud places with people drinking. So being in a pub for a sporting event that was going to be loud and rowdy at first did not seem appealing to me in the slightest. But, I want to know what it is to be a Kiwi, to really be somebody from New Zealand. And part of that is going to be being around the loud, the drinking, and the rugby. So what the hell.
I will tell you, I have never seen or been a part of something more epic, inspiring, and breathtaking than being in that pub watching the game. We got their early, got a table, and had dinner (which was cheap bar food and not particularly good), and then sat and waited. And waited. And the pub slowly started to fill up around us. And then, at around 830 or 845, suddenly, the pub around us was packed. The French anthem was sung and people politely sang along (I think there were a few French supporters in the pub, but they were downstairs). And then the NZ Anthem came on. Everybody that I could see stood up and sang along. And I don’t mean the polite singing along that we Americans do at a baseball game. Or the way that we use the national anthem on TV as a means of having just three more minutes to get the gang settled and the food passed out. Everybody sang along to their national anthem (in both maori and english! with sign translation too!) in as full throated and fullbodied manner as they could. The room was buzzing, the excitement was so palpable you could feel it against your skin like an electric current. Everybody at back down (or remained standing if you didn’t have a seat) and got ready for the next big thing. The Haka.
One more pause here. The Haka, or rather more properly it should be stated as being ‘a haka’, is a war dance done by native tribes around the southern pacific islands as a means of intimidation. The All Blacks are not the only teams to perform a Haka, in fact most of the island national teams down here (Tonga, Samoa, Fiji) also perform their own. But when we’re talking Rugby, and the All Blacks, then I believe it is appropriate to use the full on capitalized “The Haka”, because nearly everybody down here will know what you mean.
Now, the bar is full, lets say about 200-300 people, all buzzing and bubbling with Excitement. The All Blacks line up for the Haka. The French line up across the field from them in a flying V pattern (Yay Mighty Ducks!), and Piri Weepu starts the chant. The entire bar goes silent. The kind of anticipatory silence that crawls up your neck and settles at the base of your skull. Speculation over which Haka (the ABs have several that they do, but there was strong anticipation for two of them, one being Kamate, and the other being Kapa O Pango) flittered around the room as the Haka leader, Piri Weepu, began the chant. And the All Blacks performed Kapa O Pango (my favorite of the two). The first lines were met with cheers in the pub, and then the French flying V flew up and formed in a line directly across from the All Blacks, accepting the challenge. And the Pub went crazy.
The game was intense, seriously intense. It was not one of the better played games, but it was still heart-wrenching. There were a few missed kicks from both teams, and then a playbook perfect try (score) from the ABs and then halftime. After halftime, the French scored and the game was at 8-7 New Zealand. And that was where the game would stay. For the next 40 minutes until the end of the game.
Intense. The last two minutes of play amounted to essentially the AB’s wasting the clock, taking a knee, running out the clock as best they could and holding onto the ball for dear life. Everybody in the pub is screaming, pounding on tables, clapping and shouting at the screen. Rugby plays 80 minute games. If there was a stop in play for any reason (like decapitation being a reason to stop play) then however long the stoppage was, was added onto the end of the game. There was a total of almost 2 minutes of stopped play, so everybody was watching the play clock, watching it count up to 82 minutes. Holding their breaths while shouting at the same time, and then the collective inhale at 82 minutes, the Referee blowing his whistle to signal the end of the game, and then the cheering. The screaming, the jumping around and hugging people who only an hour before you didn’t know and are pretty sure spilled their beer on you as they walked past. There was shouting and screaming and absolute insanity.
There were tears and screams of joy. And I’ll admit that I teared up a bit. It was seriously the most intense thing, the most outstanding thing. It will be a night that I will probably hold in my memory for as long as I can. Friends, atmosphere, and an entire country taking in a sigh of relief and then letting it out in one huge long exultant scream. I had never experienced a live sporting event in a pub before, and I strongly doubt that I will ever experience another one quite like this ever again.
Last night was one of those moments that completely solidified something in my mind that I already knew. I want to be a Kiwi. I want to know this culture, live this culture, embrace this country and it’s people, and just be a part of it all. I love this country, I love these people. And I love the All Blacks!