Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rugby Obsession (Nelson, New Zealand)

Nelson is a beautifully located town on Marlborough Sounds boasting a modern style cathedral, a number of museums and a lively Saturday market. However a World Cup rugby match between the Australia Qantas Wallabies and Russia has the town buzzing. The Rugby Union World Cup is only played every four years and is the biggest sporting event in the world for 2011. Twenty nations qualified for the finals played across New Zealand.

The red, white and blue stripes of the Russian flag and the Southern Cross of the Australian flag hang from wires, flagpoles and shop windows across the town centre. The local population exchange their support for New Zealand for a day to adopt either Australia or Russia, warpaint liberally smeared across the faces. Some go to exceptional lengths with folks bounding down the main street dressed as wallabies while others appear in formal Russian military outfit (are those boots made of real bear?) or dressed as cosmonauts.

Certain folks choose to dress as their favourite players with Radike Samo (one of Australia’s most popular players), a genial towering giant of a player matched by a blossoming afro hairstyle littered throughout the crowd.

With blanket coverage of anything associated with the game in this rugby obsessed nation, children of an early age and adults alike have a huge appreciation of the subtleties of the game and the latest team news on injuries and selections.

Indeed, New Zealand has an obsession with rugby maybe stronger than any nation has with any sport worldwide. The fortunes and pride of the entire country appear to ride on the fortune of their national side, the All Blacks with their leading players appearing daily on both the front and back pages of newspapers and their images adorning billboards extolling the virtues of a wide variety of products. News of international importance or significant economic developments takes a backseat to the fortunes of New Zealand’s favourite sporting sons. Many pages of print and bandwidth and megabytes of internet are allocated to detailed analysing of the most minute aspect of anything associated with the All Blacks play.

The captain and coach appear to have a more demanding job than even the Prime Minister of the nation with anything less than victory in every match, event and tournament considered an abject failure.

While the finals have naturally been allocated to the major centres of Auckland and Wellington, the forty pool games of the World Cup have been sprinkled across the country, a number to smaller provincial centres. The twenty teams along with their adoring supporters criss-cross the country with both a chance to visit these lesser known locations while supporting their favourite team.

The picturesque Nelson Rugby Park is encompassed by an amphitheatre of lush rolling hills, the modest ground jamming in 16000 enthusiastic fans in a sea of green and gold (Australia) and red, white and blue (Russia). The Nelson Rugby Club headquarters sit just outside the ground and play host to a battalion of Wallaby supporters while proudly reminding everyone that they are oldest rugby club in New Zealand having been establish in 1870 (only thirty years after the English and Maoris signed the famous Waitangi Treaty and the British truly settled the nation).

While the Australians win comfortably as is expected by the rankings, the Russians play gallantly and are cheered passionately to the final whistle. The joyous mood is vibrant and bubbly, the crowd involving themselves in every twist and turn in the match.

In a few short days in the country, I have met folks from Scotland, England, Wales, France, Samoa, Italy, Japan, South Africa, Russia, Canada and the USA all exploring the delights of New Zealand while cheering their team.

Between enjoying the natural splendors, anyone visiting New Zealand should ensure the capture part of the heart of this vibrant country and see a game of rugby, something that encapsulates the culture and spirit of this stunning country.

Kicking a rugby ball with a couple of local Nelson kids in the park, they seem so proud to have so many visitors to their city with some of their schooling to the geography of some of the countries. They recite various aspects about Australia and Russia though conversation quickly returns to rugby. They assure me that their beloved all Blacks are guaranteed of the World Cup and will annihilate my beloved Australian Wallabies should they get to play. Most importantly, they say it with a combined sense of fun and pride, a tone adopted throughout Nelson as the entire city play their part in hosting the 2011 World Rugby Cup and left a lasting positive memory from all who visited to watch a rugby game.

I travelled as a guest of Qantas Airways on The Great Crusade, a promotion highlighting the best of New Zealand while following the endeavours of the Qantas Wallabies to win the Rugby World Cup. The journey can be followed via Twitter hashtag #greatcrusade.


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