First of all, I am not a fairweather fan. I have always appreciated and been a fervent supporter of well-built men in small shorts.
I first saw a bit of a rugby game a few years ago while staying at a hostel in Manchester, England. The audience in the hostel lounge was me and five women in their 50s. The other women knew all the players, the rules, the strategies. Me? I knew that I liked what I saw.
When I lived in New Zealand, I tried to learn more about rugby. Easier said than done. In a nation where babies come into the world wearing the colors of their local team, few were interested in explaining it to a newbie and those who tried left me cross-eyed and confused. I even bought a book about New Zealand rugby but set it aside after the third chapter. It was written for those born into it, full of insider notes and jokes, and not for someone looking in from the outside.
I once went to an informal rugby match hoping to learn the game. Alas, the match was too informal and was basically 40 or so drunk guys slamming into each other with little respect for the rules.
So I was thrilled to have a chance to watch a serious rugby game, albeit on tv, when New Zealand took on France for the Rugby World Cup last Sunday. I figured the commentators would, well, commentate in a matter that answered all my questions.
Left to my own devices, I came to the conclusion that rugby is entirely about moving the ball from one end of the field to the other in the following manner: throw the ball to a guy, jump on him. Throw the ball to another guy, jump on him. Throw the ball, and keep throwing it, and whoever catches it gets mugged by at least half a dozen guys from both teams.
I do like the rugby uniforms, not just for the way the players fill them out, but because they’re just shorts and a shirt. No helmet. No padding. No armor. And when they tackle, they tackle the bejesus out of each other. It makes American football look a bit, well, fussy by comparison.
I was excited when New Zealand’s All Blacks won on Sunday because well, they really wanted to. And their colors are black and silver, which I love. And they looked much better in their shorts than the French. And it was great to see how excited Kiwis were to win the World Cup for only the second time in its history, on their home turf no less.
When I heard the All Blacks were bringing the Webb Ellis Cup to Christchurch for a parade and celebration today, well, I knew how I’d spend the day. After picking up my new passport, I stopped at McCafe, McDonald’s answer to Starbucks (don’t judge… they have free WiFi and the coffee is actually okay), and started walking crosstown to Hagley Park, where the celebration was slated to start in three hours.
Walking down Riccarton, I passed Nando’s, a chain bistro sort of restaurant, and noticed a few dozen people standing around a white bus parked beside it. As I passed the semi-outdoor dining area, sheltered from a cool breeze with plastic sheeting, I glanced in and saw several men in matching black shirts. Huh.
Wait a minute. They look kinda familiar. One of them looks a lot like… whoa… it is Richie McCaw*!
[McCaw, All Blacks captain and favorite of the ladies, finished Sunday’s game bleeding from his ear. That’s hot.]
I got my camera out and joined the dozen or so fans–all women, ahem–casually positioned nearest the semi-outdoor dining tables. One of the other women, standing beside a minivan with her daughter and six-month-old granddaughter, admitted to me that she pulled over, across traffic, when her daughter screamed she’d seen Richie at Nando’s.
These guys get paid a lot of money and have a lot of perks, so part of me didn’t feel bad lurking about. But another part was like jeez, let them eat their lunch. So after a few shots I walked over to the bus to join the larger crowd there.
The bus was parked in the middle of the small carpark shared by Nando’s and a little strip mall, and one of the delivery guys for the Chinese takeaway was trying to pull in. I backed up to let him by and then just had a feeling I should turn around.
So I did, and was glad I’d stopped and turned because I was about to back into a rather rugged looking fellow sitting on the concrete base of the strip mall sign.
My first thought was “Oh, he’s a fan, all decked out in black and holding a replica of the Webb Ellis Cup…”
My second thought was “Wait a minute…”
My third and most lucid thought was “Holy Crap! That’s Brad Thorn! One of four rugby players in the whole world I can recognize and name! He’s the one retiring now that they’ve won the World Cup! He’s the one who cried like a baby on the field when they won! And that’s no replica… that’s the real Webb Ellis Cup!”
That’s one of many things I love about New Zealand. In the States, you wouldn’t find LeBron James leaning up against a strip mall sign casually holding the Stanley Cup. Okay, you wouldn’t find that partly because James plays basketball and the Stanley Cup is a hockey thing, I know that, but you know what I mean. No security. No fanfare. No ridiculous entourage and designer sunglasses shielding him from the world.
“Would you like a photo?” he asked.
Would I like a photo?!
I handed my camera to a schoolgirl loitering about, aware that hardly anyone was noticing Brad. Everyone was looking at where Richie was. And I thought of when the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird and I stalked Sean Bean (both times) at the stage door when he was starring in Macbeth. As the other actors came out one by one and politely pressed through the crowd of overexcited spinsters, they had that same tight smile of acceptance. One even said “I know you’re not here for me, you’re here for the man, if you could just step aside so I could get to my car.”
I’m guessing either Brad drew the short straw to be the designated photo opportunity or, retiring as he is, maybe he volunteered to savor the moment. Or maybe, and I can believe it from the scant interviews I’ve seen with him, he’s just a nice guy who enjoys connecting with his fans.
In any case, I was kind of giggling that I was about to pose for a photo with a world champion and the world champion cup in front of a strip mall sign without a single security person in sight. Part of me couldn’t believe that he was just sitting there, a few feet off the road, holding the cup. Then I thought who in his right mind would try to mug Brad Thorn for the Webb Ellis Cup?
At the same time, I got really shy. I was terrified of saying something stupid, such as “Holy Crap! You’re Brad Thorn! One of four rugby players in the whole world I can recognize and name! You’re the one retiring now that they’ve won the World Cup! You’re the one who cried like a baby on the field when they won!”
In the end, he made most of the conversation, asking me how my day was going (my pithy reply: “Good. And, uh, you? I mean, your day?” to which he said “Awesome”). I did manage to say “Thank you” and “Congratulations.”
What I really wanted to say was “Oh. Ohhh. You’re lovely. So solid. So firm. So… meaty.”
Later on, when I saw other people getting their photos taken with him, I noticed everyone else grabbed the Webb Ellis Cup. Me? I never even thought of it. I grabbed the man. Hugged him. Sort of caressed his shoulder because, well, it was very nice.
Fortunately, as I was a moment away from starting to lick the side of Brad’s face, a little boy saved my dignity and asked if he could have his photo as well, and my up close and personal moment with The All Blacklicious One was over.
Brad got on the bus shortly afterward and the rest of the men in black started filing out of the restaurant, including McCaw.
While the team took their bus to the start of the parade, I hoofed it to Hagley Park and found a spot near the stage. A Kiwi woman and I had a good time chatting while waiting two hours for the hoopla. After all Christchurch has been through with two major earthquakes and several big aftershocks in a year, and losing their World Cup games because the quake shattered the stadium, it was neat to be in the middle of so much goodwill.
But New Zealand, seriously… you need to learn about merchandising.
There wasn’t a single “World Champion All Blacks” t-shirt/hat/scarf/tea cozy to be bought. In the States, in addition to a lot more security, pushing and shoving and general chaos, you know there would be a dozen guys selling souvenirs, most of them unlicensed. Here there were just 50,000 happy people. Go figure.
The All Blacks arrived, eventually.
They were welcomed by Christchurch High School boys performing a haka, which was cool to see (hakas are always cool) but tough to get a photo of, even with my good spot.
Christchurch’s mayor gave a brief speech about courage and all that. A local DJ bantered with a various players and then, after joking with McCaw, put on Justin Bieber’s dreadful song about “One Less Lonely Girl” or something like that. The DJ said when Bieber played that song in concert he’d pick one girl out of the audience to serenade. The DJ made his choice. And security escorted a 70-something Granny onstage, still holding her bag of groceries, to hug McCaw and then put the moves on several other All Blacks.
I love New Zealand.
Soon after, it was all over. The All Blacks got back on their bus and the crowd followed them out in a long, slow, happy but peaceful procession. It was a great afternoon, the events completely overshadowing the fact that, shortly before thoroughly enjoying Brad Thorn’s shoulder, I booked my tickets for onward travel. On Sunday, the next adventure starts. Stay tuned.