The first thing one notices (aside from the familiar faces of Elijah Wood and Peter Jackson telling Air New Zealand passengers to fasten their seat belts) upon arriving in Aotearoa is rugby. The game is everywhere. And it means everything.
It seems that on almost every street, whether in Dunedin or Auckland, the striking jet-black jersey of the New Zealand national rugby union team—fittingly deemed the All-Blacks—shines, for all to see, in some store window. The price of the jerseys further indicates the reverence for which Kiwis have for their boys on the pitch.
One of the orientation leaders on my program used to teach at a Catholic primary school. While giving the group some background on essential New Zealand culture, she told of how, when saying their morning prayers, the young boys in her classroom would always ask for a little heavenly guidance for their heroes. “Please God, let the All-Blacks win,” they would whisper.
The sport is a unifying force on the archipelago—old and young, North Island and South Island, Maori and European all embrace the team. Walking through residential neighborhoods, I have seen black and white flags decorating people’s front porches and the side will not be reuniting for a contest until July. For Kiwis, though, it is a year round phenomenon.
In the United States, despite being a nation invested in sports, we do not have anything quite on the scale of the All-Blacks, at least in terms of nationwide rooting interest. Perhaps, every four years, the country comes together to watch the US national soccer team fall to some superior squad from Europe or South America in the Round of 16 at the World Cup, dashing our naive hopes at a chance for glory. Our more constant sports interests—baseball, basketball and football—have more to do with hometown pride.
The All-Blacks, on the other hand, have rewarded their fiercely loyal fans by reaching the apex of the Rugby World. They won the 2011 World Cup (as well the 1987 tournament) and will look to defend their title this fall when they head to England for the 2015 tournament. Unfortunately, I will have departed New Zealand before the All-Blacks participate in any of their tune up tournaments this summer. Believe me, I would have doled out the cash to catch them play and take in the atmosphere of one of their matches if they were active during my tenure in Dunedin.
I did, however, already have the chance to see the local Super Rugby team—the Highlanders—play. Super Rugby is a union of teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who compete against one another every year. The Highlanders represent the Otago and Southland regions of New Zealand (both at the southern end of the South Island) and play their home games in Dunedin. Forsyth Barr, a futuristic open-air stadium near Dunedin’s harbor and a short walk from the University Flats, finished construction in 2012 and holds over 30,000 for rugby games. Keep in mind that Dunedin only consists of 116,000 residents.
I bought a ticket to sit (well, stand) in the student section known as the Zoo. All week, the international students heard legends of the Zoo—that students dressed in ridiculous costumes, led choruses of resounding cheers and turned the event into more of a party rather than a sporting event. “You probably won’t see much of the match,” one Kiwi host told me, alluding to the fact that I would be too distracted by the spectacle in the stands to pay any mind toward the action on the pitch. Needless to say, I was sincerely anticipating the cultural mashup of Dunedin’s rowdy student life and New Zealand’s unofficial—well, maybe actually official—religion.
We entered the stadium amid a throng of people in the pouring rain. I was getting mentally prepared for what seemed to be a pending a riot at Forsyth Barr (it was the season opener, as well, to add to the suspense.) And then … well. Despite the stories, it was not quite Cameron Indoor (home to Duke University’s Cameron Crazies) inside the stadium. The Zoo was slightly exaggerated and the craziness never really exceeded students whacking each other on the head with inflatable KFC drumsticks. Still, the game was entertaining and I did get to watch and pay attention to the match (though admittedly, I am no expert on Rugby). The Highlanders, a solid, if unspectacular team, fell to their arch-rival, the Crusaders (from Christchurch, New Zealand), in a hard-fought 26-20 contest that came down to the final seconds.
I fully intend to continue attending Highlanders matches, and hope, also, to sit in the regular stands next time, to get more of a sense of the local crowd’s attitude toward the team. Although I still wish I could witness the All-Blacks in person, the Highlanders should prove a more than satisfying alternative to fill my hankering for professional sports. Especially since the drive to Dodger Stadium is not so close to my dorm room for the next few months.
So, my rugby experience and immersion will continue. But if you want some really unique and interesting material on sports in New Zealand, ask me next week about the Cricket World Cup. I purchased a ticket to see Scotland take on Afghanistan in Dunedin. Who knows what I may have gotten myself into.