Putting on a show

RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says the Bledisloe Cup provides a very different spectator experience to that of a Tri-Nations match involving the Springboks.

The All Blacks’ animated celebrations at the end of their come-from-behind victory against Australia in Sydney in September was telling. Certainly it cemented their position as the pre-eminent team in world rugby at present. It also spoke of the character of the collective, an utter refusal to be beaten, which is a quality that was missing in 2009 and one that amplifies their threat. But mostly it said that there is no such thing as a meaningless Bledisloe Cup Test.

It was a Thursday afternoon before the Test in a swanky bar on Circular Quay in the Sydney city centre. Legendary Wallabies scrumhalf Nick Farr-Jones was rampant in his efforts to school me in  the significance of the Test and indeed the cup, which New Zealand had already secured.

‘As Australians we appreciate that the Springboks have a massive rivalry with the All Blacks,’ he said. ‘But there’s something special about a Bledisloe Cup Test that that rivalry will never have. It’s more than a battle for bragging rights in this region. I can’t define what it is. It’s special.’

I can’t accept his view. As South Africans we’re conditioned to consider Tests against New Zealand as the pinnacle of sporting contests. There is no greater foe, and after an informal chat on the topic with New Zealand’s 1987 World Cup-winning captain David Kirk, it becomes apparent that that sentiment is shared by most New Zealanders and certainly the All Blacks. ‘There’s nothing the boys love more than to down a Saffa,’ Kirk offered bluntly.

The appeal, I gather from discussions with Kirk and other Kiwi journalists, is rooted in perceptions of the Springboks. Where the Wallabies play nice, the Boks are the playground bullies – hateful, unsophisticated creatures who are despised for their stubborn reluctance to follow the script of what a rugby game should be: a celebration of athleticism, intelligence and skill over brawn. Victories are therefore celebrated with more gusto, while defeats wrench to the very soul.

No more starkly is the folly in Farr-Jones’ assertion exposed than at the collisions at the ANZ Stadium on game day. If the depth of desire can be measured in the ferocity of a tackle, then he and those who share his view are deluded if they think a Bledisloe Cup Test can be compared to one involving the Springboks and All Blacks.

However, that alone would be a sterile measurement of the rivalry. South Africans would struggle to comprehend the relatively low intensity levels of the crowd in Sydney. It’s as if they’ve come to watch a Cirque du Soleil production, whereas in Tests involving South Africa and New Zealand there is the undeniable sense that you’re in a colosseum watching gladiators duel to the death.

It’s in this context that one must understand and appreciate a clash between the trans-Tasman rivals. It’s a spectacle, where pizzazz and panache usually take precedence over blood and thunder. There are no decapitations, brutal lobotomies or severed limbs. Nobody brings nail-studded bludgeons to this battle, and neither are they expected to. The rapier is the weapon of choice, and the quality of the match is measured by the combatants’ dexterity with that weapon.

And there are few better settings for a stand-off of this nature than the ANZ Stadium. Magnificent in its scale and breathtaking in structure, it was first used to host the track and field events during the Olympics in 2000.

Matches of any code at the venue tend to reflect the pacey and entertaining nature of the city, and the Test didn’t disappoint in that regard, with both teams displaying a willingness to ‘play’ and a healthy disregard for the conservative conventions of the game.

Sydney is by no means a rugby union heartland. It is the domain of those in tight pants and vests, the Australian rules mob, and is also the stomping ground of rugby league’s superstars. The NRL’s Sydney Roosters and AFL’s Sydney Swans bossed coverage in the media in the lead-up to their respective semi-finals, with the Bledisloe Cup tie routinely relegated to the fifth page of the sports section, after news about soccer’s Sydney FC. It is the men from these codes who command the most attention at the bars and nightclubs around the city in the post-match revelry, with the union lads suffering from relative anonymity or pure indifference.

But the locals are deeply in love with sport, and are determined to see as much of it as humanly possible. This was evident when a 3pm kick-off was purposefully scheduled for the NRL semi-final between the Roosters and West Tigers, in order to give fans an opportunity to make the trip across the city for the 8pm Test kick-off. That it attracted 70 000 was a notable achievement considering the Swans’ play-off had commenced at the same time.

Most of those had made their way to the stadium carried by a slick train service, arriving well before kick-off to enjoy the numerous beer gardens and entertainment options around the Olympic village.

Like in South Africa, the demographic mix is not representative of the city’s population, with whites dominating the numbers, although, understandably given South Africa’s history, this is not nearly as contentious an issue in Australia.

To hear Piri Weepu’s call to war and the response of his team-mates during the haka was an exhilarating experience that South African crowds have robbed themselves of thanks to their idiotic insistence on jeering. The home crowd cheered the rendition, something that is unheard of in South Africa due to portions of the attendees wearing their boorishness like a badge of honour.

But not at any stage did the atmosphere reach a level of intensity that can rival that of a Springbok Test, especially one involving the All Blacks, not even when the Aussies burnt white-hot out of the gates and looked like snapping a nine-match losing streak against their neighbours.

Perhaps that has much to do with the low expectations of this Wallabies unit, given their distinct mediocrity over the past two-and-a-half years. Perhaps it is that the crowd is nowhere near as emotionally invested in the outcome, as would be the case in South Africa or New Zealand.

The Australians seem to have a sense of perspective that most in the rugby fraternities of these two nations just don’t have. Victory is certainly the hoped-for outcome, but defeat, which the Wallabies suffered when they capitulated spectacularly under pressure, isn’t met with scorn or castigation. There is no vitriol in the press either. It is a climate condusive to complacency and excellence in equal measure.

In reflecting on Farr-Jones’ assertion about the magnitude and meaning of a Bledisloe Cup Test, I tend to think that he may be blinded by nationalism. Perhaps in his career the magic and mystique he speaks of was more prevalent. It was, of course, a time when the Springboks were just re-entering international competition and their rivalry with the All Blacks, eroded through years of isolation, had not yet been rekindled. But it certainly has been now, and while a Bledisloe Test provides a bout of escapism, it will never capture the imagination in the manner a Springboks–All Blacks Test does.

– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine.