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Bloodsport

New Zealand's All Blacks Prove That You Don't Need a Prep School Pedigree to Dominate the Rugby World
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Jonah Lomu of New Zealand, a 6-foot, 5-inch behemoth of Tongan descent, has been called the greatest athlete alive. At 255 pounds, he covers 100 meters in 10.8 seconds. The Dallas Cowboys, envisioning him accelerating past defenders or trampling over them, have begged him to become a National Football League fullback. In basketball, he'd be the second coming of Charles Barkley. He has toyed with the decathalon.

Instead, Lomu's electrifying open-field running and head-on tackling has transformed rugby, once a sport for upper-class English schoolboys, into a souped-up form of human pinball. While playing for his club team, Weymouth, and his provincial team, Counties-Managua, he quickly became New Zealand's most heralded sports star. As a player for the professional national team, the All Blacks, he has turned on tens of millions. Only the United States plays American football with any real interest or proficiency, but rugby football is the fourth largest participation sport in the world. Lomu is its Pele, its Michael Jordan, its Babe Ruth.

When Lomu began his career with the All Blacks in 1994, at age 19, as a back-row standout converted to the more glamorous wing position, he was the youngest player in their hundred-year history. In 1995, still hardly known outside New Zealand, Lomu scored four tries--the equivalent of four touchdowns--against England in a World Cup semifinal in Cape Town, South Africa. The impact of that performance, and those that followed, was felt on every continent. "You raised the profile of the sport, found parts it had never reached before," wrote Stephen Jones for The Sunday Times of London in a paean to Lomu. While watching Lomu, media mogul Rupert Murdoch reached for a telephone and initiated negotiations for a worldwide, 10-year satellite television contract with the three major rugby-playing Southern Hemisphere nations, thus transforming this traditionally amateur sport into a professional extravaganza.

Then, just a year after the '95 World Cup, Lomu fell dangerously ill. The diagnosis, a potentially fatal kidney disease called nephritic syndrome, gave him a less-than-even chance of recovery, and half that of ever playing again. He suffered through chemotherapy. The poison unleashed his appetite and he gained almost 100 pounds. But somehow he returned to the playing fields in the summer of 1997, rebuilding his strength and stamina in club matches for Weymouth, trying to find his championship form. When the All Blacks set their roster for a long-awaited tour of England, Wales and Ireland that would end the 1997 season, Lomu was included despite his weakened condition.

With that announcement, what was already an important series of matches became momentous, and the climactic final test against England, near London at Twickenham in December 1997, an occasion not to be missed.

Even coming from New Zealand, so distant and so isolated, the All Blacks are rugby's most popular and proficient team, a worldwide symbol of the sport. During the 1963 season, the team won 34 of 36 games, which may well stand as sport's most successful barnstorming venture since baseball's Cincinnati Red Stockings, who won 130 straight games from 1869 to 1870. In 1967, the All Blacks traveled to Britain and won four tests, or international matches, in succession. (A quarantine that prevented them from entering Ireland foiled a possible fifth victory.) They won 17 straight internationals between 1965 and 1969, which remains a record. In 1978, they again swept through the Northern Hemisphere. From 1987 to 1990, the All Blacks played 23 internationals, home and away, without defeat--another record. Though they've won only one of the three quadren-nial World Cups that have been contested--the first, in 1987--they have snatched the game from Britain and made it their own.

Rugby union, as the standard 15-player-a-side version of the sport is known, has been a pastime for the educated elite since its beginnings at the Rugby School, a boarding institution for boys at the town of the same name in England. During an intramural soccer game one afternoon in 1823, William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and flaunted convention by carrying it down the field. The new game caught on, and while generations of gentlemen continued to play after their school days were over, the sport remained strictly an amateur pastime. Nobody thought to pay the players (though a seven-a-side brand of the sport called rugby league has been professional for years) because those sons of well-to-do families who mastered the game at England's poshest schools and invariably attained a comfortable living at another profession didn't need the money. Being paid to play would be unseemly. If the more elegant soccer was said to be a game for gentlemen played by ruffians, rugby was a game for ruffians played almost exclusively by gentlemen. The sport's elitism served to rank ruggers among sports' finer conversationalists, handy with an Oscar Wilde quote or historical reference, but it hardly maximized the quality of play.

In New Zealand, as in other far-flung outposts of the empire, rugby evolved differently. There it is the national pastime, played by boys from all over the country, across billiard-green meadows, but also in mottled city parks. The All Blacks--named for their black shirts and black shorts--are selected from among the finest county players across the two islands, an entire economic spectrum. A Maori tribesman may stand side by side with the grandson of a British colonel. And the multiculturalism works. As of the start of their 1997 European tour, they had won 22 of 24 international matches since the 1995 World Cup, including a 43-6 thrashing of defending champion Australia in July 1996, and hadn't lost during 1997.

As the All Blacks' plane touched down at Heathrow Airport in November 1997, rugby union stood at a flashpoint. Only two years earlier, amid much wringing of hands, the sport had embraced professionalism. Television money suddenly existed to subsidize new opportunities for competition, and nobody wanted to miss out. As a result, the five traditional rugby-playing nations that make up the Northern Hemisphere's elite--England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France--were bracing for the wildest autumn the sport has ever known. For the first time, all three major Southern Hemisphere clubs--New Zealand, Australia and South Africa--simultaneously planned European tours, which meant 12 full internationals--matches between national teams--over 30 days. "Insane," Cliff Brittle, chairman of England's Rugby Football Union, called it. "Insane," agreed New Zealand coach John Hart. It was billed as a "Month of Madness," and the more prudent voices in the sport world intoned that, for a variety of economic and artistic reasons, it must never be allowed to happen again.

But for this one month, it would happen. Crisscrossing Britain, Ireland and northern France, the best teams in the world would go head-to-head. The resulting snapshot would provide the answers to a series of intriguing questions. Might the 1997-vintage All Blacks be the best rugby side ever constructed? Would Lomu regain his form? And how large a gap existed between the dominant Southern clubs and the struggling North, and between the All Blacks and the rest of the world? In a month, with luck, we would know.


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