Island Life by David Slack


A bar of two halves

Dinner began with a plate of assorted hams, salamis and sausages of the French southwest. To follow, succulent rich slabs of duck, and to their side, potato drenched in roquefort. After that, more cheese, concluding with an apple tart and God Defend New Zealand in the adjoining bar. Even a fine French country restaurant brings forward its opening hour on the night of France's encounter with Les Blacks.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon in a little village a few miles down the road from the first great piece of 21st century architecture.

"Anglais?" asked the young guy with broad forward's shoulders as he showed us up the stairs to our room. "La Nouvelle Zeland," we told him. Sometimes if you throw your dog an especially tasty bone, he will give you a growl of pleasure that sounds almost as though he is laughing. Ahead of us on the stairs we heard something of the same thing. In my fractured French we exchanged predictions and I established that toute la ville would be in the bar for the big match.

Come 9.00 pm, and indeed they are. Mary-Margaret goes upstairs to fetch her black t-shirt, and I offer the light-hearted rivalry at the bar. The haka begins and the crowd both admires it and laughs in delight at the responses of their players, particularly Chabal. Your team is always going to be more formidable if you have Marcus Lush in your starting fifteen.

Karren and M-M return and we take our seats in the New Zealand section, numbering three in total. I get the drinks in. A beer for me, Orangina for the women. The crowd of fifty or so is enjoying pastis, Heineken, trays of fine French pastries and the right (to expire in the new year) to smoke in a bar freely and at will. It's a jubilant mood as we begin, but by 13 nil, they're a little glum, and I am making the polite and generous remarks you offer when your team is looking pretty good.

The rest you know. With each French point, the proprietors plied Mary-Margaret with more implements of cheer-leading: a whistle, a giant hand, a cap, a ball, sundry implements of noise making. The locals were also offered whistles, and as the margin narrowed, the noise grew. As the situation grew progressively more dire, I began to chuckle, which perturbed Mary-Margaret greatly. I hauled her onto my knee and gave her a potted history of my jaundiced view of our country's consuming obsession with what is, when it's all said and done, a game. I promised to stop laughing; she assured me she understood.

At 79 minutes, I switched my cellphone to video camera and held it up. The internet here isn't up to YouTube transfers, so let me describe the clip. In it, you can see the crowd's unalloyed delight. You can see the barman (the one who showed us to our room) proffering me a glass. What it doesn't capture is the guy who brings over a serviette for me to dab away a manly tear should that become necessary; the woman in the French team jersey bringing me a drink; the proprietor hauling a rugby jersey off a head of antlers and presenting it to me with a flourish. The bar applauded as I pulled it on and offered them a "salut". I then struggled , in a halting conversation to understand what the proprietor's partner was telling me, namely that they would like me to give them a haka. I explained that there were half a dozen reasons why this would be a wrong idea, and enumerated them: disrespectful, not entirely honest on my part, the general lack of effect when such a special thing is performed by an unco- type like myself, and so on. I didn't tell Mary-Margaret that this was the topic of our discussion, and perhaps I should have . She could have done a blistering job.

I then played the video to various happy Frenchmen and explained to them that there would not be a bar in New Zealand that day in which I could have captured such footage.

Something about that 21st century architecture, though. If you want something to make you proud of your country, perhaps, as the saying goes, you need to build a bridge.

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