I was last in New Zealand in 2007. I spent 3 weeks driving around the country and the one thing I came away with was that the three biggest sports in New Zealand were rugby, rugby and rugby. I see rugby fields in parks and at schools. I’ve seen kids throwing and kicking rugby balls at the beach. Yesterday I went to a horse track in Auckland and the announcers were taling about….rugby.
In all my travels I’ve never seen an entire country so singularly focused on one team as New Zealand is on the All Blacks. Yes, they have a national soccer and cricket team, but they seem to take a very distant back seat to the All Blacks.
The atmosphere in Auckland the last week has been almost manic. Last week’s semi-final match was between the All Blacks and their rivals from across the Tasman Sea; Australia. I’m here as a guest of Qantas Airways who are the sponsors of the Australian rugby team: the Wallabies. As such, I and everyone in our party were decked out in Wallaby gear for the game against New Zealand. I’d say we were out numbered 10-to-1 and that is probably an underestimate.
It was supposed to be the final match, but Australia lost to Ireland in the preliminary rounds which set up the semi-final meeting between the #1 and #2 ranked teams in the world.
The atmosphere in Auckland isn’t just a function of the All Blacks being in the final. It is also matter of this being a home game and the fact that they haven’t won a World Cup since the inaugural World Cup in 1987. The one word that I’ve heard more often than any other coming into this game is “choke”. The All Blacks have developed a reputation for choking in the World Cup the last two decades.
Tonight is their chance for redemption and a chance for the entire country to get a monkey off their back. It is their quadrennial opportunity to prove themselves to the rest of the world. in the one sport they really care about.
I’ve never been to a major international sporting event before. I’d say other than the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup, the Rugby World Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The atmosphere outside the stadium (Eden Park) is like a giant party. People are dressed in costumes, flags are used as dresses and capes including flags of many countries who aren’t even competing. I saw flags from Brazil, Germany and Taiwan at the games and they didn’t even have teams in the World Cup.
Tonight I’m going to going to the game early to take photos and I’ll be rooting for the All Blacks. I think they want it more and it means much more to New Zealand than it does to France.
Win or lose, tonight is going to be very interesting!