Hard News by Russell Brown

Rugby and me

I told this story at my father's funeral. When I was 13 years old, I missed out on the Under 14 Open A team at the Burnside Rugby Club. There weren't enough of us to make up a B side, so we were moved up to the Under 15 Under 8 Stone grade, and merged with their B team.

We were the only B team in a competition of A sides, and we didn't win a game all season. But it was the best year of rugby I ever had. Having laboured away in the front row every other season (and every season after that), I was made number eight, and captain.

I ran with the ball, took tap penalties and generally had a great time. But I couldn't score a try. I'd drive to the line and be held up short, or hoof the ball downfield and chase the bloody thing only to see it take an off-break into touch five yards from the line. We didn't score a lot of tries - our winger was a short-sighted albino - and I was more likely to do so than most, but it just didn't happen.

Nonetheless, my father, as he had ever since I first played rugby at the age of nine when we lived in Greymouth, made time every Saturday to drive me down to the clubroom and, if we had an away game, ferry a carload of boys to the opposition ground. I have always been grateful for that. He watched the games and, I think, enjoyed that season as much as I did.

It so happened that the Under 15 Under 8 Stone B side had a bye on the last weekend of the season, and the Under 14 Open was short of a loose forward. So I came back into the side I'd missed at the beginning of the season, and had a pretty fair game.

And then, in the second half, we had a lineout just inside the opposition 22. We won the ball, and our rangy halfback took it and made ground off the back of the lineout. He got tackled, I called, took the pass, and crashed over, to the right of the posts. I'd like to say I ran 15 metres, but perhaps it was more like 10.

Still, I was delighted. After the whistle, I saw my Dad, and my regular coach (a lovely bloke who'd turned up to watch me play when he didn't need to) and inquired as to what they'd thought of my try. Their faces fell. After driving, and standing on the sidelines all that season, they'd nipped around the corner for to toast each other with a quick beer in the second half. They'd missed it. Life's little ironies. I saw the funny side.

I never achieved any great heights in the game, although if I hadn't broken my wrist, I might have played more than a couple of high school First XV games. But it was actually a useful experience to participate in something where I was just a battler, and I think I gained a lot through being in teams with guys I wouldn't have had much to do with otherwise.

First year out of school was 1981, and, like a good many other New Zealanders, I became alienated from the game. I clearly recall standing in drizzle on the sideline of a senior club game (I was covering it for the Christchurch Star) when news came through people's radios that the Springbok game in Hamilton had been halted by protestors. People were outraged. Good job, I thought quietly.

Anyway, like everyone else, I made my peace with the game and it's been good to me. The first season of Super 12 in 1996 was a great time to be an Auckland supporter (my ties with Canterbury are non-existent now). Apart from anything else, those raging Blues games, with Lomu and Vidiri screaming down the touchlines, and the team redefining the game, were the only place where I could leave behind a gnawing anxiety about the fact that I was being sued by a large company over something I'd written.

I like to shout at the rugby; to help the referee and advise opposition players of their shortcomings. I just like to be part of the crowd, of a collective experience bigger than me. Participation mystique, Jung called it, and it's real. I think we all need some of it, and I'd rather be the man on the terraces, or in the crowd at a great gig, than be some poor sap at a happy-clappy church in Takapuna.

This season has been rewarding. I was beside myself after the Blues held out the Crusaders to win the Super 12 for the first time since 1997. I was overwhelmingly relieved when the All Blacks did enough at Eden Park to finally reclaim the Bledisloe Cup. But, unfortunately, it won't mean much unless the All Blacks can carry it on and win the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

This is a good All Black side; on its day it can beat any team in the world, and do it playing swift, rhythmic, thrilling rugby. It includes players capable of reaching truly extraordinary levels of performance, and I don't begrudge them their big pay packets at all. The All Black jersey is one of the most powerful symbols of aspiration New Zealanders have had.

Which is why I'm getting awfully, viscerally nervous as the tournament begins. I'm most nervous about playing Australia in the semi-final; clinging to the faint hope that perhaps Argentina will upset them tonight. England, in the final, we can beat. No matter what British press plonkers like Stephen Jones say, the All Blacks were running at about 65% per cent in the test against England this year, and still would have won if Carlos had kicked for goal a little better. England didn't hold out New Zealand through four six-man scrums as Jones always insists: the hooker stood up four times to waste time, eventually got penalised, and then So'oialo fluffed a quick tap penalty. Composure. That's the worry.

I'll keep it in proportion if we don't win. It's only a game, and there are more important things. But I know how gutted I'll be, and I don't want to go there. So let's just win the thing, okay?