Pressure, according to Sonny Bill Williams, told The Listener, is not about being an All Black. Pressure is starving children, a single mother raising three kids, atrocities faced by refugees, and racism. The sneering response from three media worthies, Mark Richardson, Duncan Garner and an unnamed Herald columnist, was telling. Richardson and Garner are famous for making rational people change their minds if they find themselves agreeing with anything they say. But pressure was evident in the week between the Bledisloe Cup games between the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
I don’t know about the teams but it was definitely affecting spectators. There was an air approaching desperation when the first test was lost. As if the Southern Alps had been draped in black. Many men whose Kiwi identities seem dependent on the All Blacks being dominant in the world were particularly agitated: “Effing team’s too old! What we need is someone up front with some effing mongrel! Hanson! Effing has-been!” Thus were some of the milder criticisms from the old boys in this part of the world.
And then, when the All Blacks were rampant in the second test, frayed nerves relaxed, anger melted away as if it had never been. Reassured that our team would win the world cup calmed the hammering breasts of All Black devotees. ‘But if they don’t effing…’ Incidentally, I think the All Blacks won the second test because, unlike the lead up to the first game when they mouthed predictable cliches about the challenge ahead, in the second game they believed it.
The commentators of the games were ex All Blacks. They too were feeling the pressure. In the first game when the Wallabies were clearly the better team and heading for victory one of the commentators said despairingly, “But one thing we know is that the All Blacks are the fittest team in the world.” But of course not only has that statement been untrue for some years now, their fitness did not play a part in their defeat.
Their commentary seemed to be partial to words like ‘smash’, ‘bash’ ‘crash’, ‘slam’ as if describing car collisions. They also fondly embraced the All Blacks as ‘we.’ They were unashamedly ‘us.’
Which is understandable if you’re leaning on a bar slurping a pint yelling at the television from the privacy of your couch, where no one expects you to be professional. I do hope we are going to be treated to old style, unbiased, professional commentators at the World Cup, but I’m not hopeful. On the contrary we seem to be drawing closer to the Aussie screamer model. My preference is for the action to take place on the field, the noise to come from the spectators, and a quietly spoken, knowledgeable and unbiased commentator.
But never mind all that, who’s going to win the cup? With players and coaches plying their trade internationally fitness, speed and skill standards are now on a par among top teams. And for the first time, Wales and Ireland are no longer hopefuls but genuine contenders along with England, France, NZ, Australia and South Africa. It would be thrilling (for us) if NZ won. It would be wonderful for the rugby world if Wales, Ireland, France or Argentina won for a change. Or even Japan or Scotland, however unlikely.
For the umpteen thousands of test match tragics like me, there is another thing to consider. Watching the games from our couches and waiting for the ball to go dead to give us a chance to put the kettle on, (or go to the toilet) and then getting back to the couch before its game on again, I don’t care what Sonny Bill says, that’s pressure.