On a rugby tour of New Zealand some years ago, a friend of mine returned to his hotel room in Auckland to find two chambermaids making his bed. From the bathroom, he could overhear their conversation. There was none of the customary exchange of minutiae, no talk of boyfriends, pop music or soap operas. Instead, they were engaged in an animated discussion about the relative merits of the two scrum-halves vying for a place in the All Blacks side. One had a better pass, but the other was more mobile. It was a tough call, they agreed, before fluffing the pillows and departing, leaving no doubt that this was a country where the game was somewhat more than a game.
A touching scene at the New Zealanders’ training camp in Pretoria during the Rugby World Cup offered further evidence. Crowds of Kiwi supporters had gathered to watch a practice session and, on the sideline, stood a four-year-old boy and his mother. The child picked up a rugby ball and disappeared to a neighbouring pitch. When he returned, his mother asked: ‘Did you play rugby?’ The boy nodded. She followed this up with the enquiry that was entirely natural to her. ‘Did you win?’
Rugby Union is not the most democratic of games, as this World Cup has vividly demonstrated. Soccer has days when the world hierarchy is reversed, when Cameroon beat Argentina or Algeria defeat Germany. But rugby, with its reliance on physical attributes, has no such capacity to shock. Japan may shore up their side with the odd Tongan or Fijian but they will never compete on equal terms with the All Blacks; the Ivory Coast would probably struggle to beat an Australian side with their legs tied together. Nevertheless, when two teams are of roughly equivalent standing, victory will invariably go to the one which wants it more. That is why New Zealand almost always win at rugby and why, as the sun disappeared behind the jagged peaks of the Cape on that traumatic Sunday afternoon, Englishmen were left disoriented and bewildered.
Even Jack Rowell, the stoic manager of the England team, had his senses scattered in the wake of the All Blacks’ crushing victory in the World Cup semi-final. There were no tears or hard-luck stories as there had been when England’s footballers were beaten by Germany at the same stage of Italia ’90; Rowell was lost in awe for opponents who, when they took a 35-3 lead early in the second half, had turned it in every sense into a day of reckoning. What had made the All Blacks such a brutally effective force? Rowell was asked. His answer was remarkable, and some may say treacherous. ‘They play like a Rugby League side,’ he explained.
If the watching millions at home had scarcely believed what they had seen for the preceding 80 minutes, this comment must have caused a universal double-take. Hold on a minute. Here’s the man who stands at the summit of Rugby Union peering enviously at the lusher terrain of a code traditionally despised by the English establishment. If Rowell had admitted to cross-dressing, it would have been only slightly more surprising.