Monday, 29 November 2010

Kiwis behaving badly

First published in The Rugby Paper on 14 November 2010 and reproduced with the editor's permission.

Back in the late 70s, in the company where I worked, we had a spate of people resigning to move to New Zealand.  There were generally two reasons for their decision, the first being that they were convinced that the Soviet bloc and the West were going to go MAD – that’s Mutual Assured Destruction for our younger readers – and that everyone was going to die.  Everyone that is, except those smart enough to be in the Antipodes, and preferably as far south as possible.  You see, they’d all read Nevil Shute’s ‘On The Beach’ where the Northern Hemisphere is destroyed in a nuclear war, and the last places the radiation reaches are the southernmost points of the Southern Hemisphere.  I never quite got the logic of their move – if the balloon was going to go up I’d rather not even see the flash than linger on knowing that the wind would eventually blow the radiation south and get me, and I’d then have to decide when to take the suicide pills the book had the Aussie government handing out! 

The other reason was that pre-hobbitland New Zealand offered a simpler, less materialist lifestyle where authority was still respected, where there was less of a drug culture, the TV screens were free of smut, the streets free of litter, etc. – I’m sure you get the drift.  That always sounded pretty damned boring to me, but each to their own.  So, what does this have to do with rugby?

Last weekend’s Rugby League match at Eden Park in Auckland was marred by alcohol-fuelled fighting in the crowd, and the New Zealand press has reacted with vigour.  There had been hints of trouble to come in the recent past: the Chief Executive of New Zealand Cricket was embarrassed by the behaviour of his country’s fans when he attended a Bledisloe Cup match in Melbourne, and in his sport crowds at one-day internationals have been known to get over-excited and chuck plastic bottles at the players.  The worry is that the Rugby League game was the first real test of the newly modernised Eden Park, and its facilities were found wanting.

It seems that a small minority of New Zealand sports fans don’t know how to behave when they’ve had a few beers, and there is real worry that RWC 2011 will be affected.  Make no mistake, the forthcoming tournament, now less than ten months away, is about much, much more than rugby.  This is New Zealand’s chance to show that it is a major country that can welcome large numbers of visitors, and put on a proper show.  There’s always an Australian angle to anything New Zealand, and outdoing what their rivals did in 2003, and maybe even beating them and becoming world champions, would be near the top of any Kiwi’s wish list.  The prospect that this showcase might be marred by crowd trouble is simply unthinkable.

The press coverage in New Zealand has been fascinating, and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party must have been delighted with the exposure they got!  Their premise is that alcohol is the problem, and if the crowd is allowed to freely smoke dope then all will be sweetness and light – presumably the studies that suggest a link between cannabis and psychotic episodes haven’t yet been carried south on the same winds that Nevil Shute wrote about!

The serious but sad point is that the easygoing atmosphere we have at rugby matches in the Northern Hemisphere might not apply at RWC 2011.  The stakes are going to be so high that the authorities will not take the risk of having crowd trouble transmitted via satellite around the globe.  Expect security, which seemingly was virtually non-existent at Eden Park last Saturday, to be a lot tighter come next September.

The other factor on which the New Zealand authorities are pinning their hopes is that League and Union crowds behave differently – that’s their view, not mine.  There seems to be a feeling that one lot don’t know how to behave, whereas the 15-a-side fans do.

A more likely reason why most RWC 2011 matches will pass without incident is the obvious one: Nambia vs South Africa, or Argentina vs Georgia don’t seem to be likely flashpoints, although with Shute’s novel in mind, USA v Russia could get pretty serious!  The home nation should sail into the quarter-finals without much of a problem so it’s really only in the final fortnight that things could get tricky, and a New Zealand v Australia match is unlikely before the final – assuming both sides can win their knock-out games.  Such a final would be so tightly policed that it would be nigh on impossible for anything to go awry.

The imponderable in all of this, of course, is whether the ABs can stand the strain.  Their RWC record is worryingly poor, and the pressure cooker atmosphere caused by the weight of home expectations could work either way: to a glorious triumph on the back of a wave of Kiwi nationalism, or to a countrywide whinge about refereeing standards as happened in France in 2007.  The latter doesn’t bear thinking about!

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