Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rugby: Tasman vs. Hawke's Bay

On Saturday, Sally and I had our long-awaited date with a real Kiwi experience: our first rugby match. We purchased our tickets online the day they became available (one week prior) in anticipation of a sold-out affair. Rugby is, after all, a national obsession of fanatical proportions, and we wanted to attend the yearly national rugby league Air New Zealand Cup, so we thought getting tickets might be difficult. But that really shouldn't have been much of a concern.
The match, though exciting and really fun, was more on par with a Division I high school football game. There were local kids serving as ball boys. There were lots of 40-something-has-been-types standing beyond each end zone to watch the game. There were "Port-a-Loos" (port-a-johns) for bathrooms, and smallish stands on each side incapable of holding more than maybe 2,000 spectators.
But then again, this is a country of only 4 million people, and not everyone plays rugby (see NZ's 9 Olympic medals). Imagine a "national" league for one sport where the country had the population of Kentucky. And the rugby was certainly exciting and played at a high level. Still, it was definitely a reminder of just how small this little country really is.
Sally and I took our seats--50-yard line on the visitor's side, in the 4th row! Granted, we were stuck one row in front of the rowdy Hawke's Bay fans, but we had no ties to the local Tasman team, so we didn't care. I was a little concerned when the guy immediately behind us pre-emptively apologized for his and his "mates' behavio(u)r, but Sally took it all in stride, and it ended up being a great part of the experience. Although a little loud and obnoxious--especially the beer bong-looking device that was actually nothing more than a noisemaker that sounded like an ancient Germanic tribal horn when he swung it around in the air (if you can imagine what that sounds like?)--it was really fun. "Go, the Bay!" was their common refrain. Kinda weird, but fun. Imagine cheering for the Green Bay Packers by yelling every 5 minutes or so "Go, the 'Bay!"
We were plenty close to the action, and saw some great action. A little primer on rugby: most importantly, it is not like American football really at all, so comparing it with that just brings the wrong image completely. The only thing that's similar is that you score by making it to the end zone and physically touching the ball down to the ground while you control it. This is called a "try." Ironically, this should be called a "touchdown," like American football, but it's not. That is worth 5 points and the conversion is worth two (instead of 6 and 1) and there are no kicking specialists. One position player from each team who is on the field for the whole contest takes all the kicks. Also, and this is really important, there is no blocking. This is why it's so hard to advance the ball. There are no forward passes, and with each side having 15 people on the field at once, it's crowded, rough, and there's no room to move up. The only way to move the ball forward is to kick it forward, or to run it forward. Most tries occur rapidly on a counter-attack or after an interception or fumble, or after a punt forward takes a weird bounce and the team that just punted grabs it and runs it in. It's like soccer in that play is continuous, and again, really not like American football at all. Very interesting.
Anyway, Hawke's Bay won convincingly, and Sally and I walked back to our hostel happy having experienced such an essential Kiwi experience. And the fact that it was a smaller venue was actually better as we were able to really see and experience things from close to the field at a reasonable cost and without having to fear retribution for not knowing the rules or wearing the wrong colors. It was awesome.

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