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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.

World-class rugby is a viciously beautiful sport of blood-stained jerseys, dramatic open-field runs, artfully conceived set plays, bruises and occasional broken bones. Played without padding or other protection, it resembles American football in its running and kicking techniques, but its patterns are reminiscent of basketball. (The inventor of basketball, Canadian James Naismith, was an ardent rugger.) Like its descendant, American football, rugby's rhythm is staccato. Scrums of eight forwards a side mass together and fight for possession of a ball with their feet while the seven backs on each side watch.

Without warning, the ball eventually emerges from one end, to be snatched off the turf by a back stationed there for that purpose, and the runs and links and laterals commence. The object is to move the ball downfield without passing it forward, and a player who lands in the end zone with it touches it to the ground to score a try. That earns five points, and a two-point conversion attempt follows. Three-point penalty kicks are like field goals, as are drop-kicks. The field is larger than an American football field--110 by 75 yards compared to 100 by 53 1/3 yards--and the ball is slightly larger and rounder than an American ball. Each half is 40 minutes long, and there are no marching bands during the brief intermission.

The play is often dramatic and beautiful. One carrier can flip the ball to another a moment before getting pulled down, as if running American football's quarterback option. If all goes well, the next carrier will do the same, and so on down the line as play crosses from one side of the field to the other. The rules that govern the game are manifold, calling for frequent scrums and variations known as mauls and rucks. Bad rugby is as slow as bricklaying and as enjoyable to watch. Good rugby is exhilarating for players and fans alike.

For decades, rugby had no true international championship. The five Northern Hemisphere powers would regularly contest the Five Nations tournament to determine a champion among them, who then gained unofficial world title status. It was all very informal. Northern Hemisphere club rugby was--and still is--played as a weekend sport by teams with names like Barbarians and Wasps and Saracens. A crowd of several thousand spectators is considered ample.

The United States had a brief run of success in international rugby, winning the Olympic gold medal in 1920 and 1924; rugby hasn't been an Olympic sport since. Because America is outside the geographic orbit of the major rugby-playing nations, it hasn't been easy for the national side, known as the Eagles, to improve. Since 1977, when they toured England for the first time in 53 years, the Eagles have gone 14-40-2 in international competition. They are considered one of the best of the second tier of national clubs, which includes the likes of Denmark, Japan, Zimbabwe, Canada and Fiji.

Until 1987, an occasional transoceanic tour was all the exposure Northern Hemisphere teams had to their Southern counterparts. That year, following a lengthy debate initiated by Australia and New Zealand, rugby's leading teams gathered for their first World Cup. New Zealand's All Blacks won it, Australia's Wallabies won four years later and South Africa's Springboks upset Lomu and the All Blacks in 1995. As the British press never seems tired of repeating, the Northern teams have been shut out. It would be as if the world's best baseball teams were to gather regularly for a true World Series, and the United States never triumphed.

Even with the World Cup, England will see a top Southern club only every few years, which is why these international tours are so compelling. (The British teams also occasionally combine with Ireland to produce a touring side called the Lions.) To maximize the benefits and the gate receipts of a tour, matches take place on several levels. A full international test is the equivalent of a World Cup match, and the All Blacks have four on the 1997 trip: two against England, one against Wales and one against Ireland. They also have matches against the Welsh club team Llanelli in Swansea, Wales, and against the England and Wales "A" sides, which are a notch below the national selections. And they'll play exhibitions against England Rugby Partnership and the Emerging England youth team.

The early results of the British tour sound like old Soviet election returns. The All Blacks defeat Llanelli, 81-3, and beat up on Wales A, 51-8. At Dublin on November 15, the Irish national side manages little better. Playing without a fatigued Lomu, the All Blacks still overwhelm the Irish, 63-15, for a test victory. The same afternoon, Australia plays England at the national rugby grounds at Twickenham, where Australia's Wallabies had won their World Cup six years before. This time around, the two teams struggle to a 15-15 draw.

A week later, England meets New Zealand for the first rugby match ever played at Old Trafford, home to Manchester United's soccer team. Lomu plays and shows flashes of brilliance, setting up Ian Jones for one of the All Blacks' three tries in a 25-8 victory. Lomu's mere presence changes the geometry of the game. Even when he's off his form, five or six tacklers are often needed to stop his prodigious bulk, and because rugby allows no stopping during play, a concentration of defenders in one place inevitably spreads the rest of the defense too thin. Lomu attacks on one flank to draw a crowd, and the All Blacks cross the ball to the other wing and gain yardage.

That England receives a standing ovation from the crowd of 55,000 for, among other things, scoring its first home try against the All Blacks in 14 years, emphasizes how little is expected of the English squad. Of the 19 international matches between England and New Zealand dating back to 1905, England has won four.Not that other teams can do any better. The following week, the All Blacks beat Wales, 42-7, in a match played before 78,000 at Wembley Stadium in London, a temporary home for the Welsh while Cardiff Arms Park is gutted and rebuilt for the 1999 World Cup. Simultaneously, the English face South Africa at Twickenham. An enterprising spectator could manage to see some of both matches, though it is uncertain why he'd try. The Springboks squash England, 29-11. The idea of a Northern challenge at the '99 World Cup is beginning to seem laughable. London's bookies now favor New Zealand to defeat England at Twickenham by 33 points.

Match day dawns warmer than advertised and by late morning the temperature is in the low 50s. Dozens and then hundreds of ardent spectators stride past the line of cars holding fast on the old one-lane roads. The streets of Twickenham, the village surrounding the 75,000-seat ultramodern stadium that rises over the Thames, are closed to cars on match days and take on a carnival air. Kiosks sell England scarves, hats, fish and chips, and meat pies.

Once inside, rugby fans watch the All Blacks do the Haka, an intimidating Maori war dance performed as a pregame ritual by New Zealand's selection since 1888. The team members form a crescent on the field and intone "Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!" ("It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life!") As the chant ends with "Up the ladder! Up and up! Into the light of the sun!" the All Blacks leap in unison, legs tucked under and arms outspread. Their opponents stand by and attempt to look bored, but in truth the spectacle is riveting to any but a dead man. All Blacks matches are often won before they even begin.

Every seat in the stadium is filled, what the ticket scalpers call a hard sellout. Lomu is easy to spot, number 11 at left wing, the tallest and largest man on the field. He walks on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, but has the lithe, graceful movements of a dancer. Despite his presence, it is England that moves the ball steadily downfield early in the match. Five minutes in, David Rees makes a run down the right side, kicks the ball over Lomu, retrieves it, and scores a spectacular try to put England ahead, 5-0. Four minutes later, after another try and another missed conversion, it is 10-0. English rugby crowds are as sedate as their soccer crowds are rambunctious, and this throng--including many who have pulled off their All Blacks hats and scarves and have reverted to supporting the home team--aren't sure how to respond to this turn of fortune. They fall back on safe English behavior and sing: first "Onward, Christian Soldiers," then "Jerusalem." On the field, the All Blacks' Zinzan Brooke is stopped within yards of the goal line on the right side and minutes later Lomu is bottled up on the left.

The English are abandoning their usual strategy of punting the ball downfield to gain territory and concentrating instead on controlling the ball, keeping it out of the hands of Lomu, Brooke and the rest of the All Blacks scorers. At halftime, miraculously, England leads, 23-9, and the crowd sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

But the All Blacks aren't finished so easily. Early in the second half, Lomu takes a ball on the left side, gallops past one tackler and over another, pivots, and unleashes a long pass that adds 20 yards to the gain. Andrew Mehrtens scores and completes the conversion to pull the All Blacks within seven. Then Lomu cracks through the middle of England's defense like Jim Brown in his prime, dragging tacklers with him. It is a spectacular run that moves the ball deep into England's end. A penalty kick by Mehrtens narrows the gap to 23-19.

The All Blacks mass to attack, but England turns them back. It is a pitched battle now, a territorial game, and twice more the English hold, stopping New Zealand within yards of a try. Finally, 22 minutes into the second half, the All Blacks score a diving try up the right side and Mehrtens's conversion gives them a 26-23 lead. But England rallies, converting a penalty to even the score. Soon after, Lomu picks up a loose ball on the left flank and rumbles forward. A pass to another back...to another...to another...andthe ball makes its way to Mehrtens, who bounces it off the chilly turf and attempts a drop kick for a victory from 40 yards. But the ball scuttles low and wide, and the tie is preserved. The 26-26 outcome is the highest-scoring draw in international history and only the second of 23 tests the All Blacks have failed to win.

England's management, which has been stressing the need for a systemic overhaul, seems baffled by this sudden turn. "We're still nowhere near them in the structure of the game," English coach Clive Woodward says. "To actually say we can compete with them and win the World Cup is daft. We can't." But for a day, the nation allows itself to be jubilant. "It may be the greatest match ever seen at Twickenham," Stephen Jones writes, and the normally sober Times editorial writers are equally rhapsodic. "It enters the calendar of great...sporting occasions as one of the most exciting matches ever played...a bolt from the clouds...an exhibition for the hard new game of professional rugby union," the British newspaper of record intones. "England showed again that fortune favors the bold, the fit and the determined."

Lost among the celebration is that the All Blacks, too, accomplished their goal: 12 tests during 1997 without a defeat. The streak that had started with a 71-5 swamping of Fiji on June 14, 93-8and 62-10 demolitions of Argentina, three victories over Australia and two over South Africa has continued with three wins and a draw in the North. Lomu is fit and the Southern summer is coming. "It's been a pretty fair season," says Hart, the All Blacks coach. "It's not all doom and gloom."

The following Tuesday, Twickenham's stadium is filled again, this time for the annual rugby ritual of the Oxford-Cambridge varsity match. It is as if the Harvard-Yale football game were played on the site of the Super Bowl three days after the event. The train from London is overflowing with olive-green corduroys and bow ties and hip flasks, a mass of Oxbridge alumni on their annual field trip, a far different crowd than Saturday's. Yet when the fans catch sight of Twickenham as they march through the streets in a drizzle, the casual conversation stops.

The stadium has retained the aura of the weekend's exciting matches. Returning after Saturday's draw is like visiting consecrated ground. These uniforms are different and the quality of play is beyond comparison--passes are dropped, balls are fumbled, tackles are missed. Yet the crowd, which could have easily dissolved into the equivalent of 5,000 cocktail parties, stays vigilant, as if it somehow expects to see David Rees magically appear on right end or Lomu rumble through the middle, shedding tacklers. Simply to be attending a rugby match on this day is a patriotic act, an homage to the almost-victorious national side.

Cambridge, whose plodding players are slightly better than Oxford's, takes an early lead. It is a dull, dispiriting contest, and if the level of play is indicative of the future of English rugby, Saturday's miracle will not soon be repeated. But the aura holds. Then the drizzle stops and the sun breaks through a corner of the cloud cover, bathing the 30 players on the field in a light cast from heaven. And slowly, hesitantly, the Oxbridge crowd begins to sing. *

Postscript: Perhaps a season of 12 test matches without a defeat was ultimately too debilitating for the All Blacks. For, despite beginning 1998 with two overwhelming victories over England in New Zealand--64-22 in Dunedin and 40-10 in Auckland--they lost their remaining five tests for their worst Southern Hemisphere performance in memory. In its final match of 1998, a 19-14 loss to Australia in Sydney in late August, the listless side squandered a 14-6 second-half lead. The result marked Australia's first sweep of a series over New Zealand since 1929.

Nevertheless, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union has decided to retain coach John Hart. And there are signs that the All Blacks, who have lost only two World Cup matches ever, will begin the new season with the exuberance they have lately been lacking. With Lomu back at full strength, the emergence of Carl Hoeft, Royce Willis and Kees Meeuws as standouts, and a World Cup to inspire them, the All Blacks are considered among the favorites to capture the title in Cardiff, Wales. History is on their side.

A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Bruce Schoenfeld lives in Colorado.

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