New Zealand’s All Blacks and Australia’s Wallabies have played against each other 143 times — but it is the All Blacks who play with a legacy unparalleled in sporting history. And the All Blacks who emerged as champions Saturday of the Rugby World Cup.
Ron Palenski, historian and author of “Rugby: A New Zealand History,” says there’s no team with “a better winning record over such a long period of time than the All Blacks. They have a higher win-loss ratio than the Brazilian soccer team, Montreal’s Canadiens or the New York Yankees, winning about 83 percent of their matches,” before Saturday's 34-17 triumph.
What makes New Zealand’s All Blacks such living legends? Palenski says that rugby is part of New Zealand’s national identity, a game that has burrowed its way deep into their psyche.
Brought to New Zealand in the late 1800s, rugby was originally played by the indigenous Maori people. It was their success and their traditions which led to the national team’s adoption of the haka or ancestral war dance, now world famous as part of their pre-game ritual. The haka chant has become a much-anticipated spectacle in the modern era of the All Blacks.
Despite a growing interest, the majority of Americans are still unfamiliar with rugby.
"The US has a good record in rugby, if only they knew it,” Palenski says.
Rugby was played at the Olympics on four occasions and on two of those, 1920 and 1924, the US managed to secure the gold medal. Rugby hasn't been played since, so the US remain the defending Olympic champions. American Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both played in college, as did and Ted and Patrick Kennedy.
How different is rugby from American football? Palenski says rugby is a “much harder and much tougher” game all together.
“Real men play rugby,” he claims.
Like football, it's a contact sport with players crashing into each other. Rugby players wear no padding or helmets, though, and the game offers no time-outs or even TV commercials, just a straight 80-minute game, divided into two 40-minute halves. Unlike the sport, the fans are not a violent bunch. They do get a little crazy and definitely will be in a celebratory mood this weekend, when many of New Zealand’s bars and pubs will open their doors before 5 a.m. to broadcast the game.
Rugby fans are known for their drinking and singing and “will do a haka at the drop of a hat in the middle of the street.”