|There always seems to be a view with the rugby in New Zealand|
|Gumboots and stubbies|
There are 520 rugby clubs in New Zealand, a nation about the size of Colorado. In many of the smaller towns, the rugby club is the center of the community. There are parties there and socials, even weddings and birthday celebrations. You watch a game, have a couple of pints and then spend the rest of the evening socializing.
Obviously this rugby passion was on high display during last year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Every second house, it seemed, was flying the flags of the participants. Towns adopted foreign teams and decked out their high streets to announce their support. Seeing Namibia's flag flying over a small town in the farmlands of Taranaki - with Namibian coffee and food on sale at the local cafes - will always stick out in my mind. What the hell must the Namibians have thought? Crazy Kiwis.
|Gumboots and defensively held brollies on the touchllines.|
Even before the Europeans arrived in Aotearoa, the Maori played a game called ki-o-rahi, which has many similarities to rugby. The Maori and their Pacific Island brethren are fierce and fanatical rugby players and New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, perform a traditional Maori war dance, the haka, before all their games. Rugby is not viewed as a colonial imposition in New Zealand. It's not an upper class game, as it is in the northern hemisphere; it is not the working man's game, as soccer is in many parts of the world. It is everybody's game. Even the Kiwi women are the four-time defending rugby world champions.
But that's the business end of it. On a day-to-day basis, rugby is in the genes of the people. One of the most wonderful aspects of New Zealand rugby is the Ranfurly Shield, known as the Log o' Wood, a trophy any team has been able to grab since 1904. It's based on a challenge system, as opposed to being awarded at the end of a season - even a small, amateur club can challenge the holders. If they win the game, they win the cup and bring it home to wild receptions.
Each holder has to accept at least seven challenges a year. Even though there are professional contests that are worth more, the Ranfurly Shield fills the holders with a sense of pride. The current holders are Taranaki, and the last time I was up in New Plymouth everybody was walking a little taller. The newspaper had changed its masthead to add a picture of the Shield, the mayor was wearing a Shield pin and signs and banners were everywhere.
|Even the injured come back on to shake hands|
|Morgan, left, with a team mate|
All of this is a long way of explaining one of the things I'm going to miss about New Zealand. Communities are brought together by their love of rugby, unlike the divisions caused by, say, soccer in the U.K. The teams play hard - they look as if they want to kill each other during a game - but then drink beer together in the clubhouse and have a good laugh about life. Morgan, who at 15 is starting for his school's 2nd XV, has had the amazing honor of being part of this culture. He's toured with his team in South America and all over the North Island. He's learned to play hard while respecting the opposition.
It's a tough, even brutal, game that creates a lifetime of bonds and Morgan has been privileged to play the game in its spiritual home - even if his bruised coccyx and painful back seem to say otherwise. To this day I'm still in touch with rugby buddies from Kelvinside, Strathallan and the University of Georgia. We will always have our warriors' tales from the days when we were younger, fitter and didn't give a damn about health insurance.
I am drawn to the game here, and have stopped by to watch many random matches I just happened to see as I was driving by. I know what the players are feeling, love to hear the banter from the knowledgable spectators, the smell of Ralgex, and the trill of the referee's whistle drifting into the air. I enjoy watching the battle of wills between opposite numbers, and the shows of courage from players competing in the arena.
I know Morgan will look back on his days in New Zealand and think, "Bloody hell, what a ride." I certainly will, and I've just been standing on the sidelines here. New Zealand sure loves her rugby.