Not long now folks. Rugby World Cup 2015. 20 countries, 48 matches in 42 days. Most Melbournians aside, how much are we looking forward to that? Congregating in pubs, around television sets, on back decks, the Tong Master on duty, so too the CEO – the Chief Esky Operator. Can’t wait.
Remarkable to think this will be the eighth RWC tournament. How time has flown. But hasn’t there been some iconic moments? 1987 – John Kirwan’s 90m try against Italy, Michael Lynagh in 1991, saving the day against Ireland in the quarterfinal, David Campese, throughout the entire tournament, yinging while the defence was yanging. 1995 – Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela – Madiba – huddled together with the Webb Ellis trophy, both wearing the Sprinbok No 6.
In 1999 Steve Larkham’s field goal in the semi – how long was that kick – 70 or 80m? And of course in 2003, bloody Johnny Wilkinson, with his right footed snap in extra time in Sydney, sinking the Wallabies hopes of going back to back. We could go on and on, but I won’t because I’d get to the point where the Kiwis finally won again. And nobody wants to relive that.
To appease our bros from across the “dutch”, I’ll reference instead the moment that stands alone in my mind as THE defining Rugby World Cup image. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember it – Jonah Lomu in 1995, trampling over the top of English fullback Mike Catt in the semi-final in Capetown. Mike probably begs to differ, but how incredible was that? Every time it’s replayed, you can almost hear Catt’s sternum crunching under the weight of Lomu’s size 15 Adidas boot. Rugby roadkill – a vespa blocking the path of a freight train. Lomu in full flight was simply an awesome athletic sight.
I had the chance to chat at length with the All Black legend at a function in Brisbane late last year. I hadn’t seen him for eight years, not since Ben Tune’s Testimonial lunch in Brisbane. He’d flown over specially to be part of it. Jonah admired Tuney enormously – he challenged him on the field more than any other opponent. The respect was mutual. As Tuney pointed out, Jonah completely changed the language of midfield defenders. They used to shout: “He’s mine, he’s mine…” With Jonah on the field, the call was more commonly: “Yours…”
I couldn’t help but notice how much Lomu had physically changed between 2007 and 2014. The formidable frame was still apparent, but the chiselling had long since disappeared, his body badly ravaged by the kidney disease which not only ended his career, but still today threatens his life. But with Lomu – 100m in 11 seconds of 100m in 11 minutes – nobody gives a tinker’s cuss. Jonah will always be the king, regardless of the colour of the scarves in the pub.
I asked him if he’d ever stopped to think about how different his life might have been, if not for the intervention of Rugby.
“I think about it all the time – daily,” he said. “It’s impossible to imagine – but I suspect it would involve a “six”.
“Yeah. A six. I’d either be in a cell – six by six, or I’d be six foot under.”
There was no hint of a smile on the big man’s face. His projection was statistically sound. Of the 30 “boys” in Lomu’s “intermediate” class – Grade 9 – he knew of only four who were still alive, and not in jail. They’d killed or been killed. One of his close mates had been decapitated in full view of other “gang” members. South side of Auckland – Once Were Warriors – every bit as confronting as the movie suggested.
Lomu, on account of his sheer athleticism and the belief of a few good judges, had escaped the urban squalor and tip-ted off into a different world. The day after the Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane, he was flying directly to Brazil – some corporate commitment. From there, it was over to Monaco, Monte Carlo, a board meeting of “Peace and Sport“, a global charity organisation which assists underprivileged communities through sport. Once he might have been a warrior, but not any more. He’s a happily married father of two boys, apparently at peace with himself and the world, despite the physical, emotional and mental distress associated with being hooked up to dialysis machine six hours a day, three days a week.
Lomu clearly has the game of Rugby to thank, but equally he says, it was the culture of the All Blacks andNew Zealand Rugby generally that redefined him as a person. He was the game’s first genuine global super star, but put him in a black blazer, and he was just another number on the bus. He recalls for instance, coming back to play Sevens in Hong Kong, after starring for the All Blacks in the 95 World Cup. “I was given laundry duty for the full 10 days – 15 blokes, every single item of filthy gear was my responsibility. I’m sure I was deliberately singled out for the worst job, on account of the profile I’d enjoyed in South Africa. But you didn’t way a word – you just got on with it, because that’s what happens in good teams. The collective interest of the group is way more important than any individual agenda.”
Therein lies the core strength of the All Blacks – the sense of ownership – the pride and privilege that comes with wearing the Black jersey. It’s a legacy that’s been passed on from one generation of players to the next. Whether it’s Richie McCaw and Dan Carter sweeping sheds, or Lomu loading laundry tubs, the example is always set (or in the case of contravention, made!). Players prove themselves worthy, or mysteriously disappear, never to be invited back into the fold, regardless of how big, how fast, or how talented.
You sense Australian Rugby fans are craving to see their own mob corralled by the same rigorous cultural boundaries. We seem to flirt with them every now and then, but when things get desperate – really desperate – we quickly rewrite the rulebook, or at least add a new chapter of two. The non negotiables are hastily renegotiated, and a second chance – even a third chance – is extended. With special conditions imposed, of course.
Elite sport is unquestionably tricky, particularly in a market place as competitive as Australia. The best athletes have many different suitors, and in that sense, multiple options. Rugby officials, just like those in other sports, walk a commercial tightrope. They might ultimately hold the gun, but one barrel is pointing permanently at their own foot.
The Kiwi officials don’t need a gun. Or a rule book. They’ve got the far greater force of national pride (and possibly a few sheep dogs), herding the best of the best into one united dressing shed. A dressing shed where players know the importance of leaving things just the way they found them.
For Michael Cheika, the challenge is far greater than leaving things the way he found them. He has to make things better. Significantly better. He’s made a positive start (did you see the vision of team picking up after themselves on the sideline after the Test against the USA in Chicago?) Let’s hope over the coming 12 months (the coming 60 days!) he can continue to build his own cultural fortress, where rules are not even required.
Because every individual is making the same value-based decisions.
Thought for the month: “It (sweeping the sheds) is an example of personal discipline. It’s not expecting somebody to do your job for you. It teaches you not to be expect things to be handed to you. If you have personal discipline in your life, then you are going to be more disciplined on the field. If you want guys to pull together on the field, you have to have that. You don’t want a group of individuals.” ~ Andrew Mehrtens