The University Observer’s resident New Zealand columnist, Killian Woods, offers further insight from the Rugby World Cup
The Rugby World Cup has brought out the best in New Zealand’s shameless, but clever, advertisers who pander to their audience at every opportunity. As a run of the mill customer I like being appealed to, especially when the products involve Weet-Bix and All Black lingerie (50% off). The Weet-Bix advert however, creates more food for thought than the notion of scantily clad women (bear with me, this is going somewhere).
Five children play rugby in the park and fantasise about playing like the All Blacks. Using masking tape to roughly sketch numbers on the back of their XXL jerseys, they are transformed into the players they idolise.
The child wearing No.7 is immortalised as Richie McCaw, No.5 Sam Whitelock, no.8 Liam Messam and the youngster donning No.12 morphs into Sonny Bill Williams. Another child arrives as Williams as well, but is forced to amend his 12 to a 13 because he is meant to be Conrad Smith. And as everyone knows, there is only one Sonny Bill Williams.
Aside from the irony that Williams rarely starts at inside centre, mainly being utilised as an impact substitute at No.22, and the fact that Liam Messam didn’t make the All Blacks squad, the sequence epitomises certain aspects of rugby in New Zealand.
The advertisers want viewers to believe that if you eat Weet-Bix you’ll become an All Black, however, the thirty-second commercial really exemplifies the grass roots element of the game in New Zealand that drives the country’s unremitting passion for rugby. They eat rugby for breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper, and even drink from jersey-emblazoned All Blacks water bottles.
When fans watch the All Blacks emphatically dispose of teams like France and bemoan that their team cannot mimic such comprehensive performances, the grass roots is what should come to mind. This is the starting point for developing such spirit, such passion.
Like the favelas in Brazil, where kids play soccer on dirt and gravel, rugby is played in the street in New Zealand. As you go to pick up a loaf of bread and milk from the shop, half a dozen kids will be playing tip rugby using the width of the path and imaginary try lines. Their passion for rugby is inherited from previous generations and embraced due to the All Blacks representing idols that the children aspire to imitate. This loyalty, learnt at such a young age, cannot be forgotten and stays with them for life.
However a caveat to this unquestionable appetite for rugby must be affirmed. New Zealand only supports aspects of rugby that include the best interests of the All Blacks and the progression of their own team. This is typified by their willingness to abstain from the next Rugby World Cup in 2015 due to the tournament causing significant loss of revenue because of their ban on team specific sponsorship.
They are apathetic about the worldwide development of the sport, so much so that their media questions the decision to award the 2019 World Cup to Japan. And their brazen, bordering on disrespectful, attitudes about other teams is blatant when their anchors cannot fathom the name of an Irish back other than Brian O’Driscoll.
Adding context to the situation shouldn’t alter our view of their enviable situation. They have a perfect environment to continue their domination as one of the best rugby nations due to the social class of the country that love rugby. The middle-class in New Zealand want to play rugby and translate that desire into playing for their local clubs.
Ultimately that is why the natural athletes of New Zealand like Sonny Bill Williams won’t be lost to a different sport. The pinnacle of sport in this country is rugby, so that is where the best talent flocks. Not because they eat Weet-Bix, but possibly because Mammy Bill Williams wore sexy All Black lingerie 26 years and roughly eleven months ago.
On a completely unrelated, yet somewhat more substantial note, I don’t believe in courageous or brave acts from players on the pitch. Some commentators commend the bravery of players for big hitting tackles, try saving interventions and putting their body on the line. This is part of the sport and should accompany their commitment to the team.
True courage and bravery, however, is present at the Rugby World Cup in the form of openly gay referee Nigel Owens. The Welshman commands respect from players on the pitch through his comprehensive no-nonsense approach to refereeing and piercing tone that wields confidence in every split second call he makes.
If the International Rugby Board are intent on preventing any further confusion regarding the diverse interpretations of the laws that are meant to aid the flow of the game, then Nigel Owens must play a significant role in the tournament beyond the pool stages.
Owens has had a rough journey to the peak of rugby refereeing, which involved an intense battle with depression and a struggle to believe he could be accepted for who he truly is. Since overcoming those challenges he has became one of Wales’s first three professional referees and has taken charge of two back-to-back Heineken Cup finals. Who knows? Eden Park, 23rd of October may yet be his summit.