A Pinoy demystifies All Blacks Magic & the 2011 Rugby World Cup

[ Note from Noel : Above is how the All Blacks start every international match, called a “test”.  It’s borrowed from the Maori, the indigenous population of NZ, and the dance is called a “haka”.  It’s psychologically supposed to be very effective, and the opponents are NOT allowed to ignore it, or even turn away. Belated happy birthday to kabatch Dr Peggy Ting!  This blog is dedicated to an Aussie-Pinoy we did a stint at the Philippine Collegian with, Mr Raul Zamuco!  See you in 4 years bro! . PS : Thanks to a new friend, AJ Villarante for pointing out a glaring error ! Daghan salamat bro! ]

I HAVEN’T timed it down to the exact decimal second, but since Sunday, every daily news broadcast starts with at least five minutes of All Blacks news.  Not rugby news, which is suffocating enough, not World Cup rugby news, which is understandable, given that NZ just finished hosting more than a month’s worth of RWC matches, but All Blacks news, from how each member reached the peak of his career, to how each All Blacks game brought them to the finals, to how the finals reached its expected end, in a most unexpected manner.

Three victory parades will be held for the Rugby World Cup champion All Blacks.  Auckland on Monday, naturally (where the finals was won), Christchurch on Tuesday, which because of the twin earthquakes missed its chance to host World cup matches, and Wellington Wednesday, where your accidental migrant currently resides.

Within this whirlwind of emotion, intensity and success, it’s easy to get caught up in New Zealand’s living dream of winning the Rugby World Cup, 24 years in the making.  But for a Pinoy like us, it’s more awkward than anything.

Appreciating a game like rugby does not come easily to a typical Pinoy.  For one thing, close-contact, high-trauma team sports is not exactly popular to a culture more obsessed with basketball, billiards and boxing, the three B’s of both participation and spectator sports in the Islands.  I won’t be making any new friends among kabayan and kakosa , but famously being pikon or poor sports is a trait many Pinoys are known for , and the game of rugby is definitely not for the pikon.  Knee trips and sharp elbows in basketball seem positively kid gloves in comparison to bone-crushing body blocks, head butts and occasional eye-gouging (think Richie McC & Thierry Dusautoir) that rarely elicit more than the cursory groans and grunts from rugby players.  As regards physicality and roughness, the game resembles closely its American counterpart, NFL football, but to this accidental migrant the game of rugby seems a bit more visceral ( no visible body armor or helmets), bloody and relentlessly cruel to bone, muscle and ligament.

But back to the high drama surrounding All Blacks and their recent conquest, the 2011 Rugby World Cup (RWC).  To grasp the drama of their recent RWC success is to know the misses, near-hits and failures that NZ rugby has suffered.

For a sports tradition where anything less than being the very best is unacceptable, each of the All Blacks selections the last 24 years ( after the first and only RWC won by NZ ) has fallen short of the ultimate goal. There have been spotless performances in regional tournaments (Tri-Nations, Bledisloe Cups), perfect records on European tours (vs. powerhouses England, Ireland and Wales) and unblemished success versus all comers, but in the prize that mattered most, the All Blacks have been found wanting since 1987.

The nearest analogy I can come up with off the top of my head is Phil Mickelson, who for years endured the tag “best player never to have won a major” (0-46 before the 2004 Masters), NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who ended his stellar career after 16 seasons without once winning an NBA title, and the Boston Red Sox of Major League baseball, who waited 86 years between 1918 and 2004 before winning another World Series.  You have to admit though that New Zealand would not want to be part of this tradition of futility.

But make no mistake about it, the undisputed most popular and powerful team in rugby prior to last week hadn’t won rugby’s highest honor since Ronald Reagan was President.

In a country where rugby is without exaggeration almost a religion, winning the Rugby World Cup was no less than the Ark of the Covenant returning to Israel, the Balangiga Bells returning to Eastern Samar, or Odysseus finally returning to Ithaca.  Nothing less than a homecoming, although the outcome remained in doubt until the final moments of the final game of the tournament.

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After 24 years, the nation’s post-RWC  euphoria was equal parts happiness and relief, relief that surprise finalist France didn’t pull off an unthinkable upset after all the talk of being unworthy finals opponents to the All Blacks.

Caught up as I inevitably became in the maelstrom of rugby fever, my housemates didn’t share my newfound interest.  Kuya Flatmate had loads and loads of OFWs, relatives and long lost loves to chat with, Panganay was constantly preoccupied with his hip-hop routine, and esposa hermosa would rather catch up with much needed sleep.

Onwards from the quarterfinals I had no choice but to follow, by my solitary self, the oval ball stalwarts in their quest to become the best in the rugby world, for at least the next four years when the next RWC is contested.

It wasn’t by any means an easy trip to the finals, as the All Blacks outlasted upset conscious Argentina, blitzed archrival Australia and beat 2007 nemesis France by one solitary point, equivalent to less than a free throw in basketball.

On the team’s broad shoulders rode the hopes and dreams of the “Stadium of Four Million,” the slogan of the NZ home crowd, and though they agonized injury after excruciating injury, they did not falter.

Bucking two major earthquakes in Christchurch (September 2010 and February 2011), the worst mining disaster in years (November 2010), and the all-time worst environmental disaster early this month, and now a humongous natural gas/energy crisis just early this week (losses of NZ$40 million a day), the RWC triumph is certainly a bright light in the darkness of the last 18 months.  Moreover, the Pinoy in me couldn’t help but compare our country with this tiny nation (with less than half the population of Metro Manila) used to punching above its weight (like Manny P), used to bullying, and used to licking its wounds inflicted by overbearing giants.  And emerging stronger than ever.

Pinoys could do a lot worse than internalizing the Rugby World Cup lessons from a similarly sized, newly crowned Kiwis.  Mabuhay All Blacks and Mabuhay Kiwis and Kinoys!

Thanks for reading !