The Irish Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2010
GERRY THORNLEY on rugby
New Zealand are to rugby what Brazil are to football and there’s an extra buzz in the air whenever they’re in town
THE ALL Blacks are here and, as whenever they are in town, there’s an extra frisson in the air. The levels of anticipation go up a notch more so than when the Springboks and Wallabies are about. Of course economic factors are a consideration, but they will draw a much bigger crowd and a badly needed sense of occasion to the Aviva Stadium this Saturday than South Africa did, in the same way the presence of the Wallabies cannot replicate that full house and unforgettable night in Thomond Park two years ago.
In the same way that it would be a remarkably duller world without the French in an otherwise Anglicised or entirely English-speaking elite end of the game, so it would be comparatively lacking in colour, as it were, without the All Blacks.
New Zealand are to rugby what Brazil are to football.
All of which makes some of the negative commentary that comes their way all the more puzzling. For sure rugby is an expression of their culture in a way that no other country can quite equal, and accordingly they do eat, sleep and drink the game. As an aside, it probably adds to the pressure they come under at World Cup with each passing “failure” to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
They can be a little bit precious about their haka, and perhaps it does give them a bit of a lift.
You also wonder about the increased testosterone levels when you reflect on Speargate, regardless of Brian O’Driscoll’s response – at the behest of Clive Woodward’s ill-conceived and ill-explained advice. And certainly when they tampered with the haka and brought in the throat-slitting, it was a tad over the top.
But it is one of the great pre-match pageants in world sport, so why ban it now, and why not take exception to the hakas of Samoa and Tonga?
Part of the All Blacks’ allure is the haka. Families gather around television sets all over the rugby world just to watch it. It is compelling.
At least the Lansdowne Road crowd will afford it the respect which the Shakespearean mob-like Twickenham crowd again failed to do last Saturday week. To draw it out with Swing Low – heh, each to their own – or anything else for that matter, just shows an utter lack of respect for somebody else’s culture.
Recall, if you will, how the All Blacks arrived here three years ago within five months of Speargate. Even then the Lansdowne Road crowd afforded the haka total respect by remaining quiet before launching into The Fields of Athenry . And after the non-airing of The Fields over the last two Saturdays, to hear it would be welcome.
Which goes to show how much opponents can also make the haka work for them too. It’s all in the response. Who can forget Willie Anderson and co, even if a respectful distance now has to be maintained between the two teams, or the Welsh stand-off last season. You sensed there might be something special in the Cardiff air for that astonishing World Cup quarter-final three years ago when the French squad wore red, white and blue T-shirts to form a human tricolore, as Sebastien Chabal played to the gallery and alongside him Thierry Dusautoir did his Iceman impression before making his 27 tackles and scoring a try. It really would be a bit too PC to ban the haka now, a century too late.
The All Blacks brand has also seemed to manage that difficult balance between marketing it to its zenith while at the same time remaining as true as they can to rugby’s heritage. It’s why only their visit to Thomond Park could have sparked such an atmosphere two years ago, and why they appreciated it more than any visiting team could have done.
And then there’s the rugby. Simple rugby, made to look ridiculously easy, but played to entertain as well, without some of the sledging that their South African counterparts indulge in.
Whenever the game changes, as it has done again with the more rigid enforcement of the tackler releasing, the hindmost foot offside line and the kick-chase, they are invariably first to adapt and set the tone, notably by working their socks off to counter from anywhere rather than kick the ball.
They have been an utter joy to watch this year even if a little daunting too, especially when they loom into view on the back of their seven-try rout of the Scots last Saturday.
Their footwork and support play in possession, and intensity in the tackle, have enabled them to commit the bare minimum to the breakdown, and this enables them to play simple but brilliant rugby at the highest tempo. They have the most skilful players in the world, and are playing a brand of rugby suited to them.
Whether it takes them to the Holy Grail of a first World Cup in 24 years on home soil – which is liable to add to the pressure, especially in a tight knock-out game – remains to be seen.
Of course they occasionally bend the laws to breaking point, no one more so than Richie McCaw – described variously over the weekend on television as “a cheeky monkey” and “a very naughty boy”, as opposed to the messiah – and with whom the refereeing fraternity seem to have an allergy about brandishing a yellow card.
By rights Brian O’Driscoll should have won the World Player of the Year two years ago rather than McCaw, for whom 2009 was his most injury-bedeviled and least distinguished since making his debut against Ireland at Lansdowne Road with a man-of-the-match display in 2001. But his presence, along with some bloke called Dan and the rest of his gifted team, could be just what the Aviva Stadium needs. So, as ever, it’s good to have them back, all in all. Only one problem with the blighters. It would be nice to beat them. Just once.