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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

(continued from page 2)

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.


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