The 2011 Rugby World Cup is over. The All Blacks edged out the French squad in the finals on Sunday night, 8 to 7. It was a heart-stopping finish to a six-week thrill ride that at times seemed more like six months.
Everyone celebrated with drink and song and spontaneous line dancing long into the night. By the time it was over, every Kiwi man, woman and child could hold their heads high above their toilets while vomiting and feeling a sense of pride they had not known since 1987, the last time the All Blacks won the cup. Admittedly, most of the people celebrating would have been holding their head high above the toilet on a Monday morning anyway. But at least on this occasion, they were vomiting with a purpose.
I lived through most of the six weeks under fear that the All Blacks would lose. How many of New Zealand’s people would have thrown themselves off the top of Auckland’s tallest buildings if the All Blacks hadn’t won. By winning, the All Blacks averted a lot of sprained and twisted ankles. The depression would have been that bad, if not worse.
Many of my American friends will not know what the hell I’m talking about right now. And for once in my life, it’s not my fault. Rugby, after all, is a highly nuanced sport. Far too complex for the simple American brain to comprehend, some say. To which America would probably say: “We have nuclear weapons. And we’re not afraid to use them.”
But it’s true that Americans don’t get rugby, not the way they get baseball, basketball and football. That’s because the only way to make money off a sport, I mean real money, is to cut to a commercial break each time the Washington Nationals have to go back to the bullpen for a new pitcher. Rugby is played without breaks, which is why it will never gain traction in the US. Americans still tell time by advertisement.
The general idea of the sport really is easy to understand. But the rules may seem a bit arbitrary. So when people back home ask me to explain rugby, I struggle. Where do I even start?
Rugby. Nowhere else will you find 15 sweaty, fit young men “crouch, touch and engage” for 80 minutes with 15 other guys, without hearing “Cut! That’s a wrap.” at the end of it. This is a man’s sport, splattered with misunderstood intentions and hurt feelings. Sometimes a player has to be carried off the field, he feels so bad. The point is that everyone had fun. You can understand that, can’t you? You see? Easy peasy.
Psychology plays a huge role in this contest, as much as stamina and speed, strategy and tactics. The All Blacks perform a Haka before every game, a Maori war dance that combines intimidating gestures with a deep-throated chant. Total mind-fuck. In a subtler way, it felt as if some of the media were running their own PsyOps, belittling France’s chances–challenging opponents as they turned out to be–while the people on the street felt the zeitgeist of the mob mentality.
To see how riled up these mobs were, I decided to pretend to be a French man just before the game. I sat in a cafe wearing a beret, chain-smoking Gauloises and squeezing the waitress’ ass like it was a fresh baguette. I couldn’t believe how angry the waitress got, not to mention the other diners . I’m glad I’m not a French man, with that kind of reception.
Still, I wasn’t convinced my treatment was completely related to the mob mentality of the rugby scene. When it got closer to game-time, I decided to go out again, this time with my face painted in the Tricolour. I came across a bunch of fans at a bar, dressed in their All Black fan jerseys. They appeared to have been drinking for several hours. I said, “bonjour, mon amis.” I don’t want to get into the horrific details of what happened next. Let’s just say the police were involved, and that I’m down one pair of pants, and leave at that.
Generally speaking, though, the RWC brought a lot of positive energy to New Zealand in the spirit of competition. 80,000 fans from other countries came to support their teams. The US fielded a squad, as did Russia and some other countries I didn’t expect. I watched the US beat Russia at a bar for a little Cold War nostalgia.
It was so hard to resist, even Jacquie got wrapped up in the excitement. The Saturday before the big game, she was watching a television interview with one of the All Black coaches. He was talking about what the team has learned from its experience since the RWC started back in 1987. Jacquie says he told the reporter, “We don’t go out drinking and eating spoiled oysters the night before a big match. Learned that one in ’95.”
In the end, New Zealand enjoyed a really great RWC, and I was very glad to be a witness to it. We saw many exciting games, and there was a big payoff for the country after a lot of anxiety. The only irritating thing was that all the permanent residents had to move to one side of the North Island so that we wouldn’t capsize when the 80,000 visitors from abroad went home.