CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – It was 2003, and England had just defeated Australia in the Rugby World Cup final on Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal with 26 seconds left in extra time.
Most of the 83,000 in Sydney’s Telstra Stadium went home crushed. Watching on TV, I was electrified.
Two exhausted sides had left it all on the field, every bloody lip and cauliflower ear in plain, painful view. My fascination with international rugby had begun.
Soon, I was following professional teams like the Brumbies, Stormers and Blues on satellite TV from cities in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
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Especially Christchurch, where the Crusaders, led by a young lion named Richie McCaw, were building a dynasty in Super Rugby, the top league in the world. A pipeline of superstars flowed from New Zealand’s third-largest city to its fabled national team, the All Blacks.
Now I was headed there for a cycling trip, and to see McCaw and the Crusaders open the new season. And just my luck, our South Island cycling guide came from a Christchurch rugby family.
“This is the breeding ground, the heartland,” said Dave Mitchell. “Right here. Christchurch.”
I was about to learn how a nation of only 4.4 million could rule the rugby world. And why this brutal, beautiful game has such a grip on New Zealanders’ souls.
I discovered it has a lot to do with heartbreak, hard men and a heritage of resilience unshaken even by a devastating earthquake.
NEW ZEALANDERS KNOW all about suffering. The Canterbury region and Christchurch survived a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 2010 with no direct fatalities but $3 billion in estimated damage. The same year, a coal-mining disaster on the South Island killed 29.
But the 6.3 quake in 2011 was historic. It took 185 lives and caused $40 billion in damage. Iconic structures like Christchurch Cathedral toppled.
And like the aftershocks that followed, the emotional hits just kept coming.
One casualty was AMI Stadium, home of the Crusaders. It had just received $60 million in improvements as New Zealand prepared to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Less than 200 days before the tournament, it was severely damaged by the big quake.
Seven scheduled World Cup games were moved to other venues throughout the country. “We were just pretty much gutted,” Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said of that decision.
Today, the 38,500-seat stadium remains shuttered and weeds grow inside on the unstable soil.
Miraculously, the Crusaders went 13-5-1 that season while playing every Super Rugby game on the road, finally losing in the league final. And in October, the All Blacks edged France 8-7 in a tense World Cup final in Auckland. It was a cathartic victory for the entire nation.
The triumph was a long time coming, 24 years after the All Blacks won the first World Cup in 1987. Despite almost always being the favorites, they’d fallen short every four years since. Anything less than a championship on home soil in 2011 would have been another terrible blow.
Doug Neil is an Oak Harbor native and former University of Washington rower who has watched the nation’s mood swings reach epic highs and lows depending on the All Blacks’ fortunes.
Neil and his wife immigrated to New Zealand 23 years ago. He is an award-winning sculptor of Timaru Bluestone, marble and granite. His wife, Dr. Kathleen Liberty, is an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. They watch Crusaders and All Blacks games on TV.
“We have friends who don’t care, and we have friends who are absolute rugby maniacs,” he said.
“It’s the obsession of national identity,” said Neil, who captained the UW crew and rowed on the men’s eight in 1968. “In years when the All Blacks were eliminated, I mean, God, talk about depression! You could scrape (New Zealanders) up off the pavement. They’re just devastated.”
DESPITE STAGGERING disappointments, New Zealanders always get back on their feet. Perhaps no other sport rewards sheer willpower like rugby, and the rugged Kiwis seem born for it.
Our cycling guide, Mitchell, is a wiry 6-footer who played rugby before becoming a competitive cyclist and tennis player. His grandfather Bill was an All Black. His father Murray played rugby, as does his son Todd. Mitchell knows what it takes to play this game.
“Look up Buck Shelford,” he suggested. “He was the consummate All Blacks hard man.”
Shelford’s story is legendary. In 1986, caught in the bottom of a ruck in a game against France, Shelford had four teeth knocked out and his scrotum was ripped open by a French cleat, leaving one testicle hanging out. Incredibly, team physicians sewed him up on the sideline and he returned to the field before a concussion finally knocked him out of the game.
The incident is often on lists of the most horrific injuries in sports history.
Another hard man was Christchurch native Alex “Grizz” Wyllie, a former All Blacks player and coach. Wyllie said there were only two excuses for missing practice while he was coach, “death and lambing.” Lambing, of course, being the season when sheep give birth.
Before the game went professional in 1995, many New Zealand players came right off the farm. They were hardened by physical labor and not averse to bending the rules.
“Thuggery was customary amongst the burly forwards,” Mitchell said. And in a ruck – very basically, a scramble to control a ball on the ground – it was anything goes, including “eye gouging, back raking and stomping.”
Rugby is cleaner today, Mitchell said. “The players are city boys who are bigger, faster and spend all day in the gym.”
But it’s still a game for hard men.
THE POSTER BOY for the modern era of New Zealand rugby is 33-year-old Richie McCaw. As fearless as the old-timers (he played the 2011 World Cup on a broken foot), he’s also dedicated to preparation.
The 6-foot-2, 234-pound McCaw has been an All Black since 2001, captain since 2006 and is the only three-time World Player of the Year. He is one of the greatest No. 7s, or open-side flankers, in rugby history.
McCaw is almost too good to be true. Grandson of a World War II fighter pilot, he is himself a glider pilot. The prime minister sends him texts. He was offered — but declined — a knighthood. The selfless “Sir” Richie just wants to be one of the boys. New Zealanders revere him.
“If Richie McCaw walked into this dining room right now,” Mitchell said at breakfast one morning, “every head would turn. He’s a god.”
And in New Zealand, other rugby players aren’t far behind.
“A top rugby player is king of the roost in Christchurch,” Mitchell said. “All the women chase them. And every mother wants their son to play for the Crusaders.”
Dave’s son Todd, 20, plays for the Halswell Hornets, the South Island’s top club team in Rugby League, the 13-man version of the game. (Rugby Union, with 15 men per side, remains “the mother game.”)
All sturdy good looks and seriousness, Todd Mitchell is still growing at 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds and is faster than all his mates. Growing up, he played for St. Bede’s, lately the dominant school in Christchurch. But the sport’s richest history belongs to his father’s alma mater, 133-year-old Christchurch Boys’ High School on Straven Road.
The school has produced 43 All Blacks, second-most in the country behind much-larger Auckland Grammar’s 51.
Along the old school’s wood-paneled hallways, around the corner from the painting of the queen and newspaper clippings of Prince William’s visit in 2005, are photos of the school’s rugby First Fifteens back to 1882. The framed All Blacks jersey of alum Dan Carter, who has scored more points than anyone in rugby history, enjoys special prominence.
A couple of miles away is another landmark.
“Let’s take a wee look at Rugby Park, the holy grail, where the Crusaders train. It’s hallowed ground,” Mitchell said.
Founded in 1929 and in a leafy neighborhood, Rugby Park is reminiscent of baseball relics Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
Behind the ground’s iron gates, the Crusaders’ developmental team was practicing.
A manager who identified himself as “Chalkie” said we couldn’t stay, and politely escorted us out. But he was glad to hear I’d be at the Super Rugby season opener the following night.
“It should be a cracker of a game,” he said. “See you there.”
ON A BALMY night in late February, the eve of the three-year anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, Christchurch prepared for somber recognition of the lives lost that awful day.
But the city was also celebrating. Richie McCaw and the Crusaders were kicking off the season at home against the defending champion Chiefs from the North Island’s Waikato region. A 17,000-seat replacement stadium, hastily built in suburban Addington in the year after the quake, was sold out.
It felt like an American college or pro football game. Fans showed up early in red and black face paint. The game was typically physical, and an impressive amount of Steinlager and Tui East India pale ale was consumed.
A desperate second-half rally by the Crusaders failed. Final score: Chiefs 18, Crusaders 10.
Before the game, I had met the Crusaders’ Kieran Read, 28, the world’s top player and the All Blacks’ captain-in-waiting. Just maybe, I hoped, I could meet the legendary McCaw afterward.
The final seconds ticked away and I scrambled for the corner of the field where the players exit. Soon, No. 7 appeared. A fan next to me shouted, “Just unlucky tonight, Richie. Well done, mate!”
The aging lion seemed oblivious to the noise and barely looked around as he trotted off, head high and eyes forward. Rugby gods do not have to answer every prayer, even from those of us who travel 7,500 miles to see them.
Despite the defeat, the evening was nearly perfect. And even Christchurch fans, who have overcome bigger setbacks, went home not too disappointed.
Why would they be? It was rugby season again.
Mark Akins was a sports-desk editor for The Seattle Times for 29 years before retiring in 2013.
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