Ever since we arrived in New Zealand the country has been in the grip of World Cup fever. The rugby union World Cup is in full swing in Japan and the New Zealand All Blacks, the current holders of the title and widely acknowledged to be the best team in the world, are expected to win.
By world standards New Zealand is a small nation with a tiny population. Rugby union is the one sport at which this country excels, and as such it is a source of national pride which helps bring people and communities together.
Unsurprisingly therefore, wherever we’ve been we have seen All Blacks flags, shirts and memorabilia, and ordinary Kiwis have wanted to talk to us about the competition in Japan. On our flight from Palmerston North to Christchurch we were even treated to some rugby-themed chocolate cookies. Over here, rugby gets into everything.
New Zealand have been doing very well, as expected, so your average Kiwi is feeling quite chipper. However in the semi-final they are to play England, who’ve also had a good competition to date. Over here the semi-final starts at 9.00pm, and our host at Bushy Park homestead has arranged for the match to be shown on a large-screen television in the lounge.
About 15 people are crammed into the lounge. Someone asks brightly “So I guess everyone here’s supporting the All Blacks?”
“No,” I reply in my best English accent, “We’re backing the other lot.”
A murmur goes round the room. It isn’t hostile – New Zealanders are decent folk, and the only people they really dislike are Aussies – but it’s more like an expression of pity. They know the All Blacks are the best in the world, and are worried that we’ll be humiliated when they give England a damn good thrashing.
The match starts and the Kiwis are confounded. The English are playing out of their skins and the All Blacks aren’t being allowed to settle into their normal rhythm. After a few minutes the English have scored and a sigh of dismay echoes round the room. Mrs P and I say nothing, just keep our heads down and pretend we’re not there. But inside we’re deliriously happy.
The New Zealand contingent are confident their boys will turn it around, but England continue to outplay them. Half time arrives with the All Blacks still well behind and looking out of sorts.
Our host, in an attempt to distract his guests from the disaster unfolding in Japan brings a Puriri moth for us to admire. There’s been a hatching this evening, and there are hundreds of them flying around the homestead.
Puriri moths are huge and green and, in the case of the males, desperately tragic. They spend up to seven years as a caterpillar and no more than two days as an adult moth. Their role is simple: to mate with a female Puriri, after which their job is done and they swiftly fade away and die. Such is their limited life expectancy that the males are born without mouths, so a post-coital snack is clearly out of the question.
I wonder, as we all gaze sympathetically at the wretched male Puriri, if this isn’t a metaphor for England’s game against the All Blacks, a brief and dazzling performance lasting just a few minutes followed pretty much immediately by an inevitable decline and fall.
But no, I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic. England start the second half as they ended the first, and although the All Blacks score they never seem likely to overhaul their opponents. Slowly, disconsolately, our fellow spectators quit the lounge before the game is over, quietly singing the All Blacks blues. By the time the referee blows the final whistle and England start their celebrations only Mrs P and I, and two grim-faced Kiwis, remain.
It has been an extraordinary experience, watching this match with a bunch of people to whom it plainly means so much. In the days that follow several New Zealanders speak to us about the game. They are magnanimous in defeat, and say their team was outclassed and England were worthy winners.
The New Zealanders are down but not out. Rugby union means far more to citizens of this country than it does to the English. There will be an inquest, a re-evaluation and some re-building. Probably a few heads will roll. But as Bill Shankly once said in relation to soccer, rugby union isn’t a matter of life or death in New Zealand: it’s far more important than that.
Don’t expect New Zealanders to be singing the All Blacks blues for long.