The Heart’s In The Right Place

The Monkey King Dances are a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures added for fun.

The All Blacks' Richie McCaw moments before a 2007 match against Australia.

The All Blacks' Richie McCaw moments before a 2007 match against Australia.

 

You don’t find rugby union in Arkansas, the home of Chronicle sub-editor JEFF WINKLER. So on Saturday he went Cooks Gardens to see what all the fuss was about…

Kiwi John leaned across the bar and asked, “What club do you play for?”

I’d learned two things after a week in New Zealand: don’t mention the US dollar, and above all, try to blend in with the natives.

On body type and drinking patterns he assumed, poorly, I played rugby. With the sketchy information I had, I tried to be accommodating.

“Oh, I play for League.”

Silence.

“Uh, the Long Blacks? Short Whites?”

I covered the coffee shop’s entire menu before confessing.

“Actually, I’m from The States,” I said. “I’m with the New England Patriots.”

Truth is, I know little about the organized brawl this great country holds as its national obsession. Back home, it’s Football (sorry, gridiron) and the same sort of intoxicating bloodlust hovers over the crowd.

But I’ve absorbed some rugby images since that incident and even before Saturday’s game at Cooks Gardens, I began to see the less obvious differences between Le sport le plus populaire of our respective countries.

Most interestingly, in the States, postulating loyalty is usually at the feet of an anthropomorphic creature (lions, tigers, bears) or some culturally barbaric virtue (rebels, volunteers, The Fighting Irish).

Here, it’s black, white, and silver. I find it difficult to rally behind an idea or inanimate object, especially if it’s just varying degrees of light-absorption. Can you imagine the scene following thousands of people yelling, “Go Green!” in the land of SUVs and central heating?

Utter chaos.

Sure you have the “Warriors” and “Titans” but in general, we save those over-arching labels of glory for basketball or high school clubs, not the country’s spotlight teams.

I’m quickly grasping the rules of the game, though, and feel I can almost recognise a toss-up when I see it. Still, there was something unnerving about the whole scene. Unlike boxing or the gridiron players smacking each other’s form-fitting behinds, the latent eroticism of behind the idea of barely-clad men sweating, grunt and piling on top of one another, could not be ignored.

My favourite moment arrived when an East Coast player was left flat on his back and the game continued down field even as medics came to his aid. Now this is what I’m talking about! None of that fake, pat-on-the-back American sympathy for the wounded. The players were finally forced to stop but the poor chap hardly made it to the bench before the clocked came back to life. It’s play hard or get outta the way here. Good on ya.

It’s only my first match and everyone says I need to witness the glory that is an All Black’s match. Still, I missed the brute beauty of gridiron. The different plays remind me of chess and the heavy pop of pads awakens in me some ancient lust for epic Spartanian battles. Perhaps I just miss those repetitive slow-motion replays of the 300 pound gorilla about to receive his fifth career concussion.

But that’s all if you ignore the most integral part of any sporting event – the atmosphere. I felt a glowing feeling of home-cooked warmth keeping in my seat. And for 40 minutes, I was back on American soil.

The pee-wee Riche McCaws clomped around in their dirty cleats, catching the “big kids’” poorly kicked balls. The older gentleman behind me gave play-by-play analyses and the smell of clogged arteries wafted near the concession stand.

When our man broke through the pack, I felt that first rush of a possible score and we all cheered when he made end zone dive. Just like home, I shared an anonymous triumph with others, this time with something I barely understand.

Halftime came and I was ready for the cheerleaders to prance out on the field and give a performance. Instead, it was a gang of ladies looking to make the conversation ¬- not exactly the same. When they tossed practice balls to the audience, I didn’t get a single one. I was probably a metre taller than those hopping up and down around me.

After that disappointment it was time to leave. Even with just a 14-0 lead, it was clear ES didn’t have the kind of gut-wrenching determination to come alive and the day-long drizzle was finally getting to me.

My roommate Amber and I walked home and I prayed we wouldn’t run into the kid I’d seen earlier. He’d been standing on the sidewalk wielding a cricket bat bigger than him. Actually, you couldn’t tell who was wielding who. Back home it would have been a baseball bat. And back home, the little maggot wouldn’t have cheerfully ask to “whack” me with it.

“Forget rugby,” I had thought. What’s my first cricket match going to be like?”

Wanganui Chronicle, August 2007

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