by Mark Freemon
4 September 2011 (Hunua, New Zealand)
That game in 1999
I am Joseph Mark Freemon from New Bern, North Carolina. I married into this lovely country in 1999. In that same year, while returning from a Fijian honeymoon, I was part of LOSS 1 to the French. Somewhere in my pile of old VHS lacrosse videos is one marked France vs All Blacks - 1999. I’ve been known to play the tape on the odd winter afternoon when my yard chores have been completed. I don’t know why I punish myself, with this decade old footage. Maybe, just once, I think the game might end differently.
Oh yes, there are some lovely bits where Jonah steamrolls several hapless Frenchman and scatters them like a collection of Parisian cafe tables crushed in the wake of a charging rhino. And typically, after playing one of the most vibrant, attacking games of rugby I’ve seen, the French played like a bunch of girl scouts in the final against the Wallabies and finished first loser. This didn’t seem to matter because the All Black scalp remains the highest reward and nothing, not even time, could take that away.
This far into my New Zealand stay, I can still recall the sound of the initial gasps and yelps when the airline captain announced the final score. The sullen look on my in-laws faces when we met them in the arrivals hall was far too poignant a reminder on just how much we are connected to this unique sport and those special players.
Way back then, I was new to this land, its people and their game. At that point I had no true investment in New Zealand rugby culture and did not endure the introspective questioning that lingered here for months after THAT 1999 game.
My ALL BLACK introduction
My introduction to the fabled All Blacks actually occurred in1996 in a Hertfordshire pub called the Cricketers. Through heated - but good natured - exchanges between locals, the landlord Iain and my future wife Helen McLean; I gleaned any early All Black truths from English men with odd shaped ear lobes and bent noses. Their stories depicted a murky game of confrontation played by uncompromising men who possessed stern resolve and fleet-a-foot athleticism. These tales could similarly have been shared by Romans, in the age of the gladiators. As a result of these early lessons, I now admit to cultivating a healthy amount of respect and intrigue for these antipodean immortals. Back then the All Blacks seemed larger than life itself and always capable of achieving the impossible.
I eventually arrived in Auckland for reconnaissance just before Diana’s death. I discover my future mother in law was easily more gifted, than the family men folk, when it came to reciting the game records and remembering the All Black legends. I must’ve thought “What a very cool and strange place this New Zealand!”
When I finally managed to catch a test between the AB’s and Springboks, I quickly discovered the reverent and uncompromising nature of NZ supporters.
All was running along swimmingly on the afternoon of my first, All Black test. The extended family and I had a huge feed and several bottles of local vintage and cheap beer were on offer. Life looked easy, until the start of the game. I immediately noticed a silent focus settle over the lounge. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of asking a few questions about rules and tactics. My soon to be in laws told me, quite clearly and bluntly, not to talk during the game. I seem to remember it happening like…"DON"T TALK DURING THE RUGBY or you can go sit in the garage with the kids and the farm dogs!" I’m thinking “Sheesh, these folks are serious!” on one hand and on the other I smile, laugh to myself and think “Yeah, what on Earth was I thinking?” .
A nation of selectors and coaches
I called up my mate Doug two days after the announcement of the 2011 World Cup team, I heard the press conference in the Mechanical Workshops of McConnell Dowell’s Puhinui yard. After all the names had been read, I was shocked to realize Jose Gear, like his brother Rico in 2007, had been overlooked by the selectors. When Jose gets fired up – which is pretty much any time he gets ball – he attacks the “line” like a wild animal. Gear’s evasive and invasive and the first tackler never seems to shut him down and often cover help is made to look equally inadequate. A memorable game between England and the NZ Maori, depicted a possessed Gear vs the Brits and felt, while viewing live, as if the networks had fiddled the speed of the broadcast feed whenever Jose touched the ball. He was like a Bruce Lee fight scene: all over the place and at a speed that seems unnatural. A true man vs boy scenario! So how in the world did he get left out of this squad? What on Earth had I missed?
I hoped my call to Doug might clear things up. Watching a game with Doug (we ARE allowed to talk) is always informative and often unfolds like a coaching/refereeing clinic.
Doug immediately explained how versatility was the key to the team’s success. Gear’s a specialist winger and Israel Dagg is capable of covering a few positions if injury cover’s required. Nothing personal, just a numbers issue in a team limited to 30 selections. I hung up and ran the same question past my wife, who then proceeded to give me the exact same analysis as Doug. For many weeks she seemed to take limited notice of the selections or build up to the Cup. So I question her on the response and then wanted to know where she dredged up such an educated analysis. She gives me “the look” and says, “Haven’t you learnt anything about me and rugby in past 15 years?” Everyone’s a rugby expert here…
5 September 2011 (Hunua, New Zealand)
Roll up sleeves and get into it
Only four more sleeps till the opening game of New Zealand’s, hosting of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup. Winter’s cold, rainy southerlies have shifted and Auckland, for the moment, is bathed in early morning sunshine. This settled weather seems oddly symbolic as the nation prepares for the Cup’s kickoff. This spring-like calm almost encourages us to pause and reflect for one spare moment before we pop the cork on 45 days of emotion charged rugby!
The previous months and years have been frantic, purpose driven efforts by the people of this small, deep Pacific outpost. This singularly important event has consumed, driven and at times divided our wee collective. Eden Park got wrecked and rebuilt. Our leaders have fast tracked countless infrastructure jobs and opened up the national piggy bank all in the name of our beautiful game. Highways around Auckland have been titivated, realigned, re-shaped and re planted. Additionally, regional rail links received some much needed love. Auckland’s waterfront has seen yet another transformation and, in my neck of the woods, the Clevedon village toilet block received a fresh coat of paint, new tiles and soap dispensers!
Ready or not, we go live on Friday night – 8:30. The time and preparations have raced past. Always do and yet this national working bee has been a decent tonic for our region’s depressed economy. The brief upturn in paid employment that’s accompanied the tournament preparations, promotes this nation’s belief that rugby can cure most ills.
The recent losses to Australia and South Africa were not the way I had expected we’d arrive at the doorstep of the 2011 games. And despite those two, recent setbacks, I firmly believe we’re about to witness one of the greatest sporting stories of my 46 years. Quite possibly, the All Blacks need an ounce of dilemma to keep us on edge and focussed.
Sadly, already, our beloved boys have been the target of barbed copy typed by familiar, well placed scribes. These “journos” are, for me, so predictable in their rant. They shamelessly promote caustic, repetitive views on the pages of our lone, national daily. All in the name of selling papers. But she’s a hard road to be an All Black and here exists the unspoken importance of their role.
The national expectation is so strong that often relief is the first emotion shared by the team, when the full time whistle sounds. Not a player tackled yet in anger and already the journalistic knives are out and “hacking” into what little is left of New Zealand’s modern, media ethics. True to form, they’re already sharpening the scythes for those selected “tall poppies”.
Injury updates on Read and Thompson and flight details of arriving teams are scattered across the morning Herald. The paper, as we approach day one, looks more and more like one massive sports section and it’s getting hard to find any story that does not in some way have a link to the circus about to hit town. Even the 5a.m. radio farm report is full of rugby innuendo!
Our nemesis and achilles heel – the FRENCH – have touched down and set up a culinary camp on Auckland’s North shore. Takapuna will be rolling in garlic sauces and baguettes. Japan, and native son John Kirwin, set up shop on the Whangaparoa. Soon too, the Wallabies will ride into town and suddenly the whole place will feel a heck of a lot smaller. Each nation’s arrival raises the urgency and expectations that the media stirs. Is there pressure? – You better believe it! But for now, everything is in front of us. In the All Black camp exists a building feeling of purpose and an eagerness “to roll up sleeves and get into it”!
6 September 2011 (Hunua, New Zealand)
“We’re getting reports of cars facing the wrong way on the motorway, and people running out in front of the Tongan bus...it was quite chaotic for a while” police inspector Kerry Watson commenting on the arrival of Team Tonga yesterday
Two more sleeps to go and as you might have gathered from the above quote, things are heating up in the land of the long white cloud. 7000 Tongan supporters swarmed Auckland International Airport and welcomed their native sons in a manner befitting royalty. No one shares the heart or bares the teeth like the Polynesians and Monday’s display easily proved the Tongan supporters are World beaters.
The Tongan community and all the other recent arrivals have helped cultivate a festival atmosphere. The mere presence of all the competitors and their supporters has breathed life into the event. The “stadium of four million” has been the mantra that the World Cup minister been preaching. The title in itself speaks of a seriously demented political system and a sports mad nation!
This game and this event are of GREAT NATIONAL importance. Both exist like therapy for the infirmed and a focal point for the driven. We will measure ourselves by these proceedings and here lies the harmful truth that so often accompanies the challenge.
At the moment we don’t ask or require political clarity or economic certainty. The population here is pretty clued up on the shortcomings and half promises of the federalist types. Anyway, there still exists a can do spirit born from hacking out a nation from such a remote and rugged, colonial outpost. As a result folks tend to try and take care of matters themselves. On the scale of personal importance, national structures and political halfwits finish well behind rugby, fishing and icing beer. Who needs a national leader when the national team is losing...??? We sorely NEED that CUP!
8 September 2011 (Hunua, New Zealand)
The dry, settled weather has lasted all week (almost unheard of at this time of year in Auckland). If the rains stay away, tomorrow night’s opening game may showcase some firm ground, running rugby! From my vantage point on a hilltop in Hunua, the sun set on the South side of the Manukau Heads and cast lingering hues across the width of the island. Spring’s here and summer coming. The calm conditions are surreal and yet despite this settled spell, you can sense a ground swell is building. Down below forty-four players are settling into routines before tomorrow night’s opening clash. Win with no injuries has been the talking point at work today. Crowds of 60,000 are expected to descend on Auckland’s waterfront. “Party central” and the Cloud can only accommodate up to 12,000 – chaos expected. All police leave requests have been cancelled (don’t they know there something more pressing @ stake?) and travel, from noon tomorrow, on any of the regional motorways will be interesting.
The journey begins tomorrow.
Gilbert has released a new line of rugby cleats. The Gilbert Virtuo 8S is part of the exciting new product. Check it out.
The entire All Blacks apparel line has been updated for 2013/14. Check out the New Zealand All Blacks polo.
The Nike Tiempo is a solid rugby cleat and one of few styles still made from full-grain natural leather.
The Gilbert Blitz 8S rugby cleat is a great cleat at a great price of $69.99. Get a new pair of cleats today.
A cool looking all black rugby cleat with the high performance adidas is known for. Get in the Gear!
Wear the crest of the British and Irish Lions on your t-shirt. A great look for the summer.
The All Blacks Performance t-shirt is black with hints of blue from the training jersey. Very Cool.
The New Zealand All Blacks training jersey for 2013/14. Get in the Gear!
The USA Rugby Pro Alternate rugby jersey is perfect for any fan of the Eagles. Get yours to wear during the summer Test matches.
The NEW All Blacks 2013/14 jersey has arrived at World Rugby Shop. Dare to wear the colors of the All Blacks.