As they say at the BBC, it must be a matter of taste. When it comes to watching footy matches Nick Bryant has an unusual set of priorities. In defending the quality of the Rugby World Cup in these pages two weeks ago, he spent more time describing action off the field than on it. Bryant’s highlights included the singing of ‘Flower of Scotland’, ‘La Marseillaise’, ‘Ireland’s Call’ and that well-known chicken-stomping ballad, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’. And of course, the Haka.
Well Ka Mate, Ka Mate. If this is how Nick gets his kicks, he is wasting his time with the preamble to All Blacks matches. Every Saturday night here in south-west Sydney, the Minto Maori Association performs the Haka on continuous play until dawn, with a hangi and kava-keg adding to the spectacle. Why should Bryant settle for one Haka when he can watch scores in a single sitting? Perhaps he thinks they are like tries in rugby games, ‘luxury goods’ as he calls them. If so, Minto is the Harrods of the Haka.
With his fixation on rugby’s pre-game festivities, Bryant has been working spectator shifts: clocking on for the singalongs and war dances but then grabbing a quick kip after kick-off. Thankfully, he comes to life again for the post-match ceremonies, marvelling at the ‘code’s Mandela moment’, Queen Elizabeth’s presentation of ‘Bill’ to John Eales and John Howard’s to Martin Johnson. On the field in these three World Cup finals (in 1995, 1999 and 2003) the competing teams scored a total of four tries in nearly five hours of play, an average of one every 70 minutes. Small wonder Bryant has a clearer recollection of the trophy presentations than the rugby itself.
One match he does remember is the Australia versus South Africa quarter-final, a game which purportedly ‘made Wellington the site of an unlikely Australian Waterloo’. Certainly the Springboks played with a tactical finesse reminiscent of Bonaparte’s army as it marched up the bare slopes of Mont Saint-Jean. The South Africans spent 70 per cent of the match in Australia’s territory but could not score a single try. Their grand plan was to pass the ball one or two off the ruck and then lumber into the waiting Australian defence. The Wallaby line was compressed so tightly that the defenders could reach out and touch each other’s arms. This allowed them to put two or three players into every tackle — a turkey shoot for the men in gold.
This is an excellent case study of what modern rugby has become: a game of bash and barge, whereby attacking teams play for field position and pursue victory through the tedium of penalty kicks and field goals. Defensive teams compact their line so that it covers just half of the width of the field, allowing them to easily contain the opposition and wait for turnovers in possession. Once the ball has been recovered, they try to kick themselves out of trouble, sparking another round of aerial ping-pong. The concept of running rugby has been consigned to St Helena.
Recently, a student of the game wrote an astute summary of this problem. He complained of the ball being ‘hoofed mindlessly from one end of the pitch to the other and then back again … a moronic kickathon singularly devoid of flair, inventiveness and ambition’.
He lamented how ‘union was in a state of chronic disrepair’ and that he was ‘warming to the amputated version of the game’ (rugby league). This was Nick Bryant on the BBC website on 5 August. Quite frankly, he doesn’t know whether he’s Arthur or Martha, whether the code he is watching is rugger or bugger.
Part of Bryant’s confusion is in trying to understand why ‘rugby does not have more of a following [in Australia]’. Perhaps he should have attended the NSW Waratahs fan forum in May when a generation of rugby loyalists condemned the standard of play. As one critic told the Sydney Morning Herald:
[The comments] were heavily focused on the Waratahs consistently booting the leather off the ball, their inability to play attacking running rugby, their aimless kicking, their consistent kicking, and their obsession with kicking.
This was also true of the World Cup finals series, in which scoring from kicks far outweighed scoring from tries. In the final and two semi-finals, for instance, the competing teams kicked ten penalty goals and two field goals but notched up just four tries — one every 60 minutes. Whether Bryant likes it or not, William Webb Ellis’s founding heresy (of playing with the ball in hand) has been exorcised.
It is said that those who dressed up for Waterloo won it. Bryant, therefore, must have been delighted with Sunday’s final between the All Blacks and France. As he eagerly awaited the presentation ceremony, he would have noticed that New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key was wearing a stylish Kiwi tie and a lovely shiny dark suit. Thankfully Bryant now has a Key moment to go with his Mandela moment. He’s lucky these presentations only come around every four years. Otherwise we would be permanently in need of the Rudd remedy: a Bex and a good lie down.