the who, the what and the whom

WHO ARE YOU, WHAT SUSTAINS YOU AND WHOM DO YOU REPRESENT? ANSWER THOSE QUESTIONS AND YOU’RE HALFWAY TOWARDS BUILDING A DECENT RUGBY TEAM. OR – IN THE CASE OF NEW ZEALAND – A SENSE OF NATIONHOOD.

There are any number of reasons to fall in love with Tim Dale and James Gemmell’s homage to their homeland, ‘Beneath the Black: A Journey through New Zealand Rugby’ which premieres on Sky Sports this Thursday: the purity of the piece, the craftsmanship, the sheer life-affirming joy of the story they’re telling and – for me, quite simply – the smiles which punctuate almost every sentence. Certainly it’s a film to stir juices – even in a stiff–arsed Pom such as myself – but if you’re Kiwi, don’t consider watching this without a box of tissues somewhere close to hand. There will be moisture.

As with any good flick there’s no shortage of heft in the cast list; a Carter, a McCaw, an Umaga, a Henry – ‘Ted’ makes several very telling contributions – but, unusually, the true stars of the show are the people Tim and James have found – to coin their phrase – beneath the black; in kindergartens, on farms, in schools, in pubs, in shearing sheds and backstage in coffee bars. Do, please, keep an eye out for Nancy, Lindsay and the girls at the Edmund Hillary Retirement Home in Auckland. They’re an absolute delight.

Look, I don’t want to spoil the story – watch it and weep – but what it does in spades is reflect how powerful a totem sport can be. Intriguingly, All Black Coach, Wayne Smith, refers to the relationship between rugby and New Zealand as the love that binds a family, which is about as deep as you can go. Clearly demographics and geography have a huge part to play here but it’s the rugby – and let’s be honest, the enduring excellence of New Zealand rugby – that connects the country on whichever island – be it North, South or Pacific – your heritage lies.

There’s nothing terribly new about this, of course – Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ long since established how a sporting obsession can add some definition and identity to your life – but there are few places in the world where one sporting obsession is the backbone of an entire country. Brazil springs to mind; so too Argentina. Certainly there’s little to compare with being in downtown Buenos Aires when ‘La Seleccion’ have just beaten England in a penalty shoot out in Saint Etienne. The bonfires were still burning two days later.

But in a week when the Exeter Chiefs have become the toast of English rugby and the Scarlets the ‘lechyd da’ of everywhere else in the kingdom, it seems that the who, the what and the whom is resonating louder and louder. Two teams at geographical extremes, rooted in largely rural communities, and who – in the case of Exeter – are writing their own history and bonded in blood and – in the case of the Scarlets – have consciously sought to reconnect with one of the proudest heritages in club rugby. Identity – for both – has been not just paramount but the bedrock of their success and, clearly, we’re back beneath the black.

‘I think with the onset of regional rugby here in Wales, identity got lost a little bit,’ says Scarlets’ Team Manager, Mark Taylor, who – on Monday morning – still had the Pro12 trophy sitting on his mantelpiece. ‘I mean, I’m from Pontypool and back in the 70s and 80s – not least with the front row – we had all sorts of names playing for Wales and the Lions and all that got lost. Certainly the big effort that’s been going on here with Wayne Pivac and others is reconnecting the team to a Llanelli style of play and also to the sponsors, to the supporters and to the community. We’re trying to put something back and not make it seem like a burden but a celebration of who we are. You know, the fire’s been glowing for a while but this season, it’s finally caught light.’

Seventy miles due south across the Gower Peninsular, the Bristol Channel and Exmoor, The Chiefs have been tighter than glue for a decade, a truly family club where cider and pasties fortify the road trips home, the back of the bus is reserved for raucous games of ‘Scattergories’ – Geoff Parling wins but Jack Yeandle says he cheats – and the post-Premiership party was a Robin Hood and Maid Marian bash in Gareth Steenson’s garage. Jack Nowell actually went home with his team-mates after the – now – famous final at Twickenham and caught a taxi at seven the next morning all the way back to London to hook up with his Lions flight to New Zealand. ‘Times like this don’t come round very often,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to make the most of it.’ What else do you need to know about the roots of the Exeter Chiefs?

Which – neatly enough – brings us to the collision of the sport’s two most iconic institutions on the edge of the globe this summer; the only difference between them being that the All Blacks represent a legacy and a yardstick of outstanding excellence while the British and Irish Lions is a romantic crusade more winned against than winning, whatever Steve Hansen might say. These Lions will have a ‘lot more expectation than they’ve been used to because people expect them to win,’ said the Kiwi Head Coach last month, momentarily mislaying his marbles. Excuse me? Which people are these exactly? Lions’ supporters travel in hope not expectation. Indeed, if you can sift through the thirty thousand who’re currently girding their loins for New Zealand and find two who seriously expect the Lions to win this series – and who’re sober – then good luck.

But in fairness to Hansen, the Lions are one of the great enigmas in sport; not least with a percentage win ratio – at around thirty per cent in the past forty years – that makes them only slightly more successful than Sale Sharks or Edinburgh Rugby. And yet the coverage is on all four walls, there’s not a camper van left in New Zealand that’s not been hired or hijacked and the tour’s going to generate millions. As one Kiwi journalist gleefully put it a while ago, ‘the Lions practically defecate money.’

And why exactly is this, given they’re – statistically speaking – such chronic under-achievers? Because no one in rugby – save perhaps the New Zealanders themselves – answers the questions who, what and whom more positively than the Lions; be it the history, the elite reputation or the uniqueness of the badge and what it represents. Whether you’re a shamrock, a thistle, a rose or a leek, the Lions legend ensures that flora – effortlessly, unquestioningly – becomes fauna with a full set of very sharp teeth and large paws.

But if you want an honest measure of what these Lions are up against this summer, make a date with Tim and James’ film and marvel – among any number of highlights – at an Auckland school match that’s live on national television, watched by seven thousand people ringing the pitch and which begins with each broadsiding the other with a volley of spine-tingling hakas. ‘Beneath the Black’? The Lions will need to go ‘Beyond the Black’ if they’re to win a series in New Zealand in the next six weeks.

29 MAY 2017

 

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