Rugby

The day New Zealand made me public enemy number 1

Ultimately, they were desperate to protect an aura. While Hansen was in charge, winning a frankly staggering 93 of his 107 Tests, they succeeded in this quest, inspiring fear and reverence throughout. But under his over-hyped successor Ian Foster, hurt by a first home series loss to Ireland and a loss in Christchurch to Argentina, the shine has dimmed.

In 2013, they owned two titans of the game in Carter and Richie McCaw. Now, with Brodie Retallick as one of the few surviving links from the class of eight years ago, the rumble of an advancing army has faded. Lest this be dismissed as a purely English perspective, one of New Zealand Japan’s own coaches, Jamie Joseph, admits as much. “One of the things we used to talk about 25 years ago was that everyone was afraid of us,” he said. “Perhaps that is no longer the case.”

Be careful though, as the All Blacks still possess the weapon of intimidation that is the haka. And woe to anyone who doubts its power! In 2014 I dared to suggest that Maori ritual was turning into a theatrical absurdity. After all, when the New Zealand basketball team (the ‘Tall Blacks’, no less) played in Chicago that summer, their American opponents reacted less with abject terror than with bewilderment. So, perhaps with a touch more provocation than was wise, I characterized the dance as rugby’s answer to Cirque du Soleil, in that it was more about the choreography than the content. The outrage across 13 time zones was immediate.

Before long, the circus comparison was headlining TV3’s evening news in New Zealand. One of the country’s rugby bloggers said: “I think all New Zealanders in London should gather outside Oliver Brown’s house and do a haka for him. at 4 am”

Thankfully, I have yet to see TJ Perenara leading a massive throat-slitting gesture in the streets outside. But the occupational hazard of criticizing this team is rarely to be taken lightly. In a remote land where attitudes can be insular and where rugby is a secular religion, the slightest affront can be treated as seditious. It is as true today as it ever was that while the All Blacks’ gifts with an oval ball are wonderful, the skin of it is thinner than parchment.

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