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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

April 3, 2014 at 2:06 PM

Rugby: My journey to New Zealand, and into the soul of a sport

ans fill a 17,000-seat stadium in Christchurch for the Crusaders-Chiefs Super Rugby season opener. The temporary venue was built to replace earthquake-damaged AMI Stadium. Photo by Mark Akins

Fans fill a 17,000-seat stadium in Christchurch for the Crusaders-Chiefs Super Rugby season opener. The temporary venue was built to replace AMI Stadium, which was damaged by an earthquake.
Photo by Mark Akins

BY MARK AKINS

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – It was 2003, and England had just defeated Australia in the Rugby World Cup final on Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal with 26 seconds left in extra time.

Most of the 83,000 in Sydney’s Telstra Stadium went home crushed. Watching on TV, I was electrified.

Two exhausted sides had left it all on the field, every bloody lip and cauliflower ear in plain, painful view. My fascination with international rugby had begun.

Soon, I was following professional teams like the Brumbies, Stormers and Blues on satellite TV from cities in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Especially Christchurch, where the Crusaders, led by a young lion named Richie McCaw, were building a dynasty in Super Rugby, the top league in the world. A pipeline of superstars flowed from New Zealand’s third-largest city to its fabled national team, the All Blacks.

Now I was headed there for a cycling trip, and to see McCaw and the Crusaders open the new season. And just my luck, our South Island cycling guide came from a Christchurch rugby family.

“This is the breeding ground, the heartland,” said Dave Mitchell. “Right here. Christchurch.”

I was about to learn how a nation of only 4.4 million could rule the rugby world. And why this brutal, beautiful game has such a grip on New Zealanders’ souls.

I discovered it has a lot to do with heartbreak, hard men and a heritage of resilience unshaken even by a devastating earthquake.

AMI Stadium in Christchurch remains shuttered three years after being severely damaged in the devastating earthquake that took 185 lives and caused $40 billion in damages. Photo by Mark Akins

AMI Stadium in Christchurch remains shuttered three years after being severely damaged in the devastating earthquake that took 185 lives and caused $40 billion in damages.
Photo by Mark Akins

NEW ZEALANDERS KNOW all about suffering. The Canterbury region and Christchurch survived a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 2010 with no direct fatalities but $3 billion in estimated damages. The same year, a coal-mining disaster on the South Island killed 29.But the 6.3 quake in 2011 was historic. It took 185 lives and caused $40 billion in damages. Iconic structures like Christchurch Cathedral toppled.

And like the aftershocks that followed, the emotional hits just kept coming.

One casualty was AMI Stadium, home of the Crusaders. It had just received $60 million in improvements as New Zealand prepared to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Less than 200 days before the tournament, it was severely damaged by the big quake.

Seven scheduled World Cup games were moved to other venues throughout the country. “We were just pretty much gutted,” Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said of that decision.

Today, the 38,500-seat stadium remains shuttered and weeds grow inside on the unstable soil. There is talk of demolition.

Miraculously, the Crusaders went 13-5-1 that season while playing every Super Rugby game on the road, finally losing in the league final. And in October, the All Blacks edged France 8-7 in a tense World Cup final in Auckland. It was a cathartic victory for the entire nation.

The triumph was a long time coming, 24 years after the All Blacks won the first World Cup in 1987. Despite almost always being the favorites, they’d fallen short every four years since. Anything less than a championship on home soil in 2011 would have been another terrible blow.

Doug Neil is an Oak Harbor native and former University of Washington rower who has watched the nation’s mood swings reach epic highs and lows depending on the All Blacks’ fortunes.

Neil and his wife immigrated to New Zealand 23 years ago. He is an award-winning sculptor of Timaru Bluestone, marble and granite. His wife, Dr. Kathleen Liberty, is an Associate Professor in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. They watch Crusaders and All Blacks games on TV.

“We have friends who don’t care, and we have friends who are absolute rugby maniacs,” he said.

“It’s the obsession of national identity,” said Neil, who captained the UW crew and rowed on the men’s eight in 1968. “In years when the All Blacks were eliminated, I mean, God, talk about depression! You could scrape (New Zealanders) up off the pavement. They’re just devastated.”

Four generations of the family of Dave Mitchell, left, have played rugby in Christchurch. His grandfather was an All Black. His son Todd, right, plays on the top Rugby League club team on New Zealand's South Island. Photo by Mark Akins

Four generations of the family of Dave Mitchell, left, have played rugby in Christchurch. His grandfather was an All Black. His son Todd, right, plays on the top Rugby League club team on New Zealand’s South Island.
Photo by Mark Akins

DESPITE STAGGERING disappointments, New Zealanders always get back on their feet. Perhaps no other sport rewards sheer willpower like rugby, and the rugged Kiwis seem born for it.Our cycling guide, Mitchell, is a wiry 6-footer who played rugby before becoming a competitive cyclist and tennis player. His grandfather Bill was an All Black. His father Murray played rugby, as does his son Todd. Mitchell knows what it takes to play this game.

“Look up Buck Shelford,” he suggested. “He was the consummate All Blacks hard man.”

Shelford’s story is legendary. In 1986, caught in the bottom of a ruck in a game against France, Shelford had four teeth knocked out and his scrotum was ripped open by a French cleat, leaving one testicle hanging out. Incredibly, team physicians sewed him up on the sideline and he returned to the field before a concussion finally knocked him out of the game.

The incident is often on lists of the most horrific injuries in sports history.

Another hard man was Christchurch native Alex “Grizz” Wyllie, a former All Blacks player and coach. Wyllie said there were only two excuses for missing practice while he was coach, “death and lambing.” Lambing, of course, being the season when sheep give birth.

Before the game went professional in 1995, many New Zealand players came right off the farm. They were hardened by physical labor and not averse to bending the rules.

“Thuggery was customary amongst the burly forwards,” Mitchell said. And in a ruck – very basically, a scramble to control a ball on the ground – it was anything goes, including “eye gouging, back raking and stomping.”

Rugby is cleaner today, Mitchell said. “The players are city boys who are bigger, faster and spend all day in the gym.”

But it’s still a game for hard men.

Crusaders fans show their colors before the Super Rugby season opener in Christchurch in February. Super Rugby has 15 teams in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and is the top professional league in the world. Photo by Mark Akins

Crusaders fans show their colors before the Super Rugby season opener in Christchurch in February. Super Rugby has 15 teams in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and is the top professional league in the world.
Photo by Mark Akins

THE POSTER BOY for the modern era of New Zealand rugby is 33-year-old Richie McCaw. As fearless as the old-timers (he played the 2011 World Cup on a broken foot), he’s also dedicated to preparation.The 6-foot-2, 234-pound McCaw has been an All Black since 2001, captain since 2006 and is the only three-time World Player of the Year. He is one of the greatest No. 7s, or open-side flankers, in rugby history.

McCaw is almost too good to be true. Grandson of a World War II fighter pilot, he is himself a glider pilot. The prime minister sends him texts and he was offered but declined a knighthood. The selfless “Sir” Richie just wants to be one of the boys. New Zealanders revere him.

“If Richie McCaw walked into this dining room right now,” Mitchell said at breakfast one morning, “every head would turn. He’s a god.”

And in New Zealand, other rugby players aren’t far behind.

“A top rugby player is king of the roost in Christchurch,” Mitchell said. “All the women chase them. And every mother wants their son to play for the Crusaders.”

Dave’s son Todd, 20, plays for the Halswell Hornets, the South Island’s top club team in Rugby League, the 13-man version of the game. (Rugby Union, with 15 men per side, remains “the mother game.”)

All sturdy good looks and seriousness, Todd Mitchell is still growing at 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds and is faster than all his mates. Growing up, he played for St. Bede’s, lately the dominant school in Christchurch. But the sport’s richest history belongs to his father’s alma mater, 133-year-old Christchurch Boys’ High School on Straven Road.

“They call it ‘Factory Road,’ ” Dave Mitchell said, because the school has produced 43 All Blacks, second most in the country behind much-larger Auckland Grammar’s 51.

Along the old school’s wood-paneled hallways, around the corner from the painting of the Queen and newspaper clippings of Prince William’s visit in 2005, are photos of the school’s rugby First Fifteens back to 1882. The framed All Blacks jersey of alum Dan Carter, who has scored more points than anyone in rugby history, enjoys special prominence.

A couple of miles away is another landmark.

“Let’s take a wee look at Rugby Park, the holy grail, where the Crusaders train. It’s hallowed ground,” Mitchell said.

Founded in 1929 and in a leafy neighborhood, Rugby Park is reminiscent of baseball relics Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Countless All Blacks have trained and played there.

Behind the ground’s iron gates, the Crusaders’ developmental team was practicing. The players’ size and speed, and the tight spin and accuracy of their passes jumped out.

A manager who identified himself as “Chalkie” said we couldn’t stay, and politely escorted us out. But he was glad to hear I’d be at the Super Rugby season opener the following night.

“It should be a cracker of a game,” he said. “See you there.”

ON A BALMY night in late February, the eve of the three-year anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, Christchurch prepared for somber recognition of the lives lost that awful day.

But the city was also celebrating. Richie McCaw and the Crusaders were kicking off the season at home against the defending champion Chiefs from the North Island’s Waikato region. A 17,000-seat replacement stadium, hastily built in suburban Addington in the year after the quake, was sold out.

It felt like an American college or pro football game. Fans showed up early in red and black face paint. The game was typically physical, and heads were bloodied and shown on the big screen to “oooohs” from the crowd. An impressive amount of Steinlager and Tui East India Pale Ale was consumed.

A desperate second-half rally by the Crusaders died when an intercepted pass in the final minute gave the Chiefs a spectacular 75-meter try. Final score: Chiefs 18, Crusaders 10.

Before the game, I had met the Crusaders’ Kieran Read, 28, the world’s top player and the All Blacks’ captain-in-waiting. Just maybe, I hoped, I could meet the legendary McCaw afterward.

The final seconds ticked away and I scrambled for the corner of the field where the players exit. Soon, No. 7 appeared. A fan next to me shouted, “Just unlucky tonight, Richie. Well done, mate!”

The aging lion seemed oblivious to the noise and barely looked around as he trotted off, head high and eyes forward. Rugby gods do not have to answer every prayer, even from those of us who travel 7,500 miles to see them.

Despite the defeat, the evening was nearly perfect. And even Christchurch fans, who have overcome bigger setbacks, went home not too disappointed.

Why would they be? It was rugby season again.

RUGBY AT A GLANCE

Origins – The field at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, is considered the birthplace of rugby, in the early 19th century. American football evolved from the game. In addition to 15-man Rugby Union, there are many other versions of the game, including 13-man Rugby League and Rugby Sevens, as well as women’s rugby.

Going pro – Rugby did not go professional until 1995, the year South Africa won the World Cup championship on home soil while the nation was adjusting to the end of apartheid. The film “Invictus” chronicles that event.

Southern rule - Southern Hemisphere nations have dominated the men’s World Cup since it began in 1987. New Zealand (the All Blacks), South Africa (Springboks) and Australia (Wallabies) have each won two titles. England won the other. England will host the 2015 World Cup.

American muscle – USA Rugby’s Eagles are considered a second-tier team (outside the world’s top 10), but improving. At least seven players on the Eagles’ 47-man player pool have Washington state connections. Props Nick Wallace (Bellingham), Olive Kilifi (West Seattle), Shawn Pittman (Bellingham) and Titi Lamositele (Bellingham), and flanker Scott LaValla (Olympia) are listed with state hometowns. Kilifi, Pittman, wing Miles Craigwell (Boston) and lock Louis Stanfill (Sacramento) play for Old Puget Sound Beach RFC of Seattle. Kilifi, Stanfill, LaValla, Lamositele and Wallace all played in the Eagles’ 32-13 victory over Uruguay in late March that qualified the U.S. for the 2015 World Cup.

Mark Akins was a sports desk editor for The Seattle Times for 29 years before retiring in 2013. He lives in Redmond.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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