Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

AN INDEPENDENT STUDENT NEWSPAPER SERVING THE GW COMMUNITY SINCE 1904

The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Rugby season

While walking through the business district on my way to class recently, I passed a café/bar that was standing room only at nine in the morning, with the crowd spilling out over the patio and onto the sidewalk. From the other side of the street, I could see everyone gathered around a TV, but I had no idea what was drawing the crowd. I knew there was a game on; I could see the green field, but I couldn’t identity a team or a sport. As I hurried to campus, the crowd let out a collective low cheer, one that I wasn’t sure signified good or bad. Then everyone dispersed within seconds and the next time I looked across the street, everyone was focusing again on their coffee and commute. I, meanwhile, had no idea what occurred, but it wasn’t a bad introduction to New Zealand’s love affair with sports.

Newspaper pages here devote plenty of space to netball and cricket and racing, but the one sport to rule them all is undoubtedly rugby. Rugby is everywhere. It’s not hard to stumble across a children’s team practice or an impromptu game in a park. The most famous players, those on a first-name basis with the public, populate PSAsand commercials. There’s rugby league and rugby union and Super 14 and Sevens, but rugby wouldn’t be rugby without the All Blacks, the national team of the national sport. The All Blacks dominate rugby internationally, and the team’s success overseas means they’re ubiquitous at home. Their silver fern logo is often shorthand for New Zealand itself, and though it might be an exaggeration to say I see more fern flags that official national flags, it’d be a small one. The All Blacks are so integral to the culture here that I don’t find the name unusual anymore, even though it raises the eyebrows of Americans who don’t know that team’s uniforms are all black. It would be wrong to spend a much time in New Zealand without attending one of their games, so I bought a ticket for the first game of the season here in Wellington.

After a completely All-Blacks-less semester, the build-up to the game against Irelandwas interesting in its own right. A few articles in the paper focused on ex-pats who couldn’t quite decide who to cheer on. Bar signs challenged their patrons to drink Speights (a beer brewed in the South Island) instead of Guinness. And when the day of the game finally arrived, everyone in the city seemed to be talking about the game, clad in All Blacks gear and streaming toward the stadium. With a silver fern painted on my cheek and plenty of layers on, I was ready to go.

If you are more interested in the atmosphere of the game rather than the rules of the sport (like me, for instance), the haka that kicks off the game is not to be missed. The team performs a Maori dance before play begins, but “dance” certainly gives the wrong impression. The haka, called Ka Mate, is meant to reflect New Zealand’s cultural heritage while intimidating opponents, as the team slaps their thighs, sticks out their tongues and chants in te reo Maori. I know what you’re thinking. Sticking out their tongues? You might think that someone sticking out his tongue wouldn’t be especially intimidating, but when that person is an All Black, it’s a fierce display of athleticism.

The haka drew an enthusiastic response, but I was surprised to find that was it for the chanting for the rest of the game. All Blacks fans are devoted, almost filling the stadium on a winter night in the pouring rain, but they weren’t as boisterous as I expected. Last fall, I attended a D.C. United game. Say what you will about soccer in the United States, but those are some obsessive fans, constantly singing and cheering and waving flags. When they weren’t setting off stink bombs and throwing beer in the air each time a goal was scored, I found their boisterousness endearing, and I expected something similar from All Blacks fans. There wasn’t that same spectacle; instead, everyone actually watched the game. Even when New Zealand beat Ireland in the end, there wasn’t a big scene. There was hardly a person on the streets of Wellington that night who hadn’t been in Westpac Stadium, and everyone seemed happy for their team. Instead of provoking crazed individual reactions from their fans, the All Blacks and rugby are part of the cultural fabric, something that unites the country around them.

It reminded me of the morning crowd taking a break from work to watch the game on TV (though I’m still not sure which game). Everyone came together gripped by the game, but no one made a big fuss about it; it was just part of the morning. Rugby is a national obsession, something that is indelibly Kiwi, but fortunately it’s one that doesn’t require me to wash beer out of my hair.

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