Sunday, July 27, 2008

Love of the Game

I didn't even watch the All Blacks play Australia last night.

Truth be told I was called into work to supervise contractors working during the latest weather bomb to hit Northland. Around 2am I pulled up the NZHerald website to check the score, only to find we had lost. For once my heart didn't die a little. That's when I realised I may be well and truly be over Rugby; at least at the professional level.

For me, I now believe the only real Rugby is being played at club and provincial levels.
Titanic games played between regions; played during the day, not bowing to Northern Hemisphere television requirements, saying no to playing during cold winter nights. Many battles raged between Canterbury and Otago rugby teams, creating a healthy rivalry between the fans. That's the Rugby I love - but does it still exist today?

I recall a game where our local team beat the touring South African Springboks.
I was there at an NPC final where we beat Waikato in the final. What a day that was!
I remember standing on the terraces at Carisbrook with my friends. Chatting away, catching up - yelling Ottttaaaaagggooooo until my voice was hoarse - we made a difference some days I think.
Not too long later I remember walking around the London Underground in my Otago jersey when some lone soul at the other end of the platform let out the Otago chant. For a moment in time I was home again...all those miles covered in a millisecond.

I recall the players on that Otago team working in our community; you could see them behind business they'd own, or surfing at the local beach. You could say hello to the Otago and All Black player Jeff Wilson, as he poured you a beer at Umbrellos Bar - you might see captain Tane Randell at the Meridian Mall checking up on his businesses there. The players were a part of the community.

Sure - Tane wasn't a local lad. In fact not a lot of the guys back then were. Most of the Otago players initially played for the Otago University Team while they were away from their home provinces getting their University degrees (some even getting double degrees). Regardless of where they came from, they were our team, and a part of the Dunedin family.

Professionalism changed the face of Rugby in New Zealand. I don't believe as a nation, that we've ever recovered from the shock. Now kids with talent are picked out of schools and thrown into All Black development squads; some only to be left packing shelves in supermarkets when their playing days are done. And as for the black jersey? Where once it was won through fierce pride and determination, now in the most part it is probably expected as an end goal in a progression of Rugby development.

Something smells bad in this once-land of Rugby; but unfortunately it may be a smell we must learn to deal with. Those that control rugby seem to care little for the grass roots game, instead following the lure of sponsorship money wherever it takes them. They in turn nurture a new breed of fan who, very possibly, has never known anything but an All Black team wearing an Adidas uniform selling Steinlager. Sure - the new fans may love the game as well, but I wonder if a greater enjoyment of the game may have been long lost to them since the days of a paycheck. Frankly I doubt they would even care, wondering what the hell I was talking about.

But oh - if they were at the Carisbrook in 1998 they would know what real atmosphere was; it was as if we were all together greater than the sum of our individual parts - electrifying to experience. I was glad I was there to be a part of it.

No comments: