Bledisloe Cup #2, for rugby romantics it’s a chance to admire near sporting perfection

If it’s the game you grew up with then there’s no code of football easier to love than rugby union.

In Around the Grounds there are individual chapters about my affection and association with Rugby League, Australian Rules and Soccer. Games, which in very different and quite important ways, have formed an important part of my working and personal life.

Reading the book again recently, it occurred to me that there’s only a passing reference to Rugby Union, the only football code I ever played at anything approaching a competitive level and one that I was taught quite fastidiously by those entrusted with the task at school.

Despite my lack of speed, toughness and skill (I admit that I would love to have been a star rugby player) I developed an understanding of the game through my formative years that I carry with me to this day. Counterintuitive principles like the forward pack has the speed of its fastest member and the backline the speed of its slowest make sense to me.

My grounding in the fifteen man game was only of limited use when I was pitched into the dynamic and parochial world of Tasmanian football in 1999, as an untried Aussie Rules commentator from the other side of the Barassi line. The fictitious but beautifully named border that once divided the rectangular shaped football fields from the oval shaped ones in this country.

A few football principles hold true though, no matter what the shape of the football, the playing field or the interpretation of the offside and knock on rules. And one of the most enduring principles of all is the notion of tribal loyalty and rivalry, particularly in the form of a local derby. In Tasmanian footy it might be Burnie vs Devonport, in rugby league perhaps Penrith v Parramatta, in world soccer Holland vs Germany. In Rugby the drama and rivalry of the local derby works especially well whether it be Joeys vs Riverview (schools), Warringah vs Manly (club) or if you expand your google map of the world a little further the really big one, Australia vs New Zealand – the Wallabies vs the All Blacks.

My intake of Rugby Union is a bit limited these days, AFL is my main focus at the moment (go the Giants and also Collingwood) but when I sat down to watch the first Bledisloe cup game last weekend the same affection and familiar understanding of this highly specialised and structured game was there.

It was there for all its loyal devotees to see and in a way enjoy. The gold vs the black. Big brother vs little brother. Perennial underdog vs (nearly) perennial master.

The All Blacks who are by any measure one of the most ruthless and efficient sporting teams of any type in the world are masters of absorbing pressure, maintaining composure and discipline then simply burying you when the slightest opportunity occurs. This was evident yet again last Saturday night in Sydney in a match that New Zealand won 38 – 18, the tries to Aaron Smith and Jack Goodhue either side of half time and the opportunist try of the toe by Beauden Barrett being perfect examples of their brutal focus and efficiency (Interestingly over 162 games the All Blacks have scored a 1000 points more than the Wallabies).

The Wallabies now have to dust themselves off, rebuild their belief that they can beat New Zealand and then run on to Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday night, stare down the Haka then go about trying to do that.
It must feel to them like the ultimate sporting challenge which maybe is one of the reasons why watching Bledisloe cup games is essentially great theatre.

The game of rugby seems to have its challenges. At the professional level it’s got heavy competition from the NRL and increasingly and quite dramatically so from the AFL expansion across the Barassi line.

At times the game can appear scrappy and the rules inscrutable. But if you’ve been taught rugby well when a team (like the All Blacks) put it all together there’s probably no better game to watch, no matter what side of the score line you are on..

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