Debating current affairs

Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Clash of the titans puts sport into perspective

Can we stop pretending now? Please?

For the past month we've pretended to be entranced by soccer. Some have actually gone as far as to pay lip service to the myth cum marketing slogan of "the beautiful game". We pretended that we really believed our plucky lads would give the tournament a shake, and pretended to be gutted when they failed to make the cut.

Most of all we pretended to believe that the measure of sporting achievement is performance relative to expectations, as opposed to actually winning things.

Danish citizen Winston Reid became a national hero overnight for pulling off the staggering feat of scoring a goal.

We tend to be a bit hazy about which country is which in the geo-political jigsaw that is Central Europe, but the point is they're not bad at soccer. Slovakia is, in fact, the 35th ranked country in the world, so drawing with them amounted to one of the greatest achievements in the history of New Zealand sport.

That being the case, words can't do justice to the All Whites' subsequent draw with Italy, the fifth ranked country in the world. Obviously this has to be the greatest achievement in our sporting history, end of story.

How could it be otherwise?

And so on Monday morning, to the accompaniment of 50,000 vuvuzelas, the musical instrument that makes a car alarm sound like a heavenly choir, the world championship of soccer will be decided.

Tonight, however, Kiwi sports fans - as opposed to dedicated followers of passing fads - will be focused on the clash of the titans taking place at Eden Park. In case it had slipped your mind in all this World Cup excitement, one of those titans is us.

This week Conrad Smith admitted that only now does he really "get" the significance of the All Black-Springbok rivalry. That's not surprising. Smith was born in 1981, the year our long national screaming match over sporting contacts with South Africa culminated in civil strife.

During the subsequent hiatus in the relationship, Australia became a heavyweight rugby nation and temporarily supplanted South Africa as our greatest rival.

In 1981, many middle-class New Zealanders turned away from rugby, their shift undoubtedly a factor in soccer's subsequent expansion. Looking back, it's interesting to reflect that abhorrence of rugby's ties to a racially segregated foreign country caused some Kiwis to steer their sons away from our most integrated, representative, and therefore democratic sport into one played essentially by the white middle-class and recent immigrants.

For older Kiwis it was ever thus. The facts speak for themselves.

The Boks won a series here in 1937; it took the All Blacks until 1996 to win a rubber on South African soil, and only then did the overall win-loss ratio move in our favour.

Although the All Blacks have had the better of it in the professional era, their success rate against the Springboks is still only 54 per cent. The next lowest is 68 per cent, against the Wallabies.

But statistics don't tell the whole story. We recognised the Springboks as our true rivals because they were just as single-minded in pursuit of victory as we were. It mattered as much to them as it did to us.

My first exposure to the Springboks was when they played New Zealand Universities at Eden Park in 1965. The students had the extraordinarily bad luck to have their three best players - All Blacks Chris Laidlaw, Ian Uttley, and Mick Williment - crocked or nobbled, depending on what you believe. There were no substitutes in those days and the Springboks piled on 50 points.

In 1970, Colin Meads was playing the best rugby of his illustrious career. The boot went in during the Eastern Transvaal game two weeks out from the first test, buggering both Meads' arm and the All Blacks' chances of winning the series.

In 1986, the Cavaliers defied the international community, the Government and public opinion to undertake a rebel tour of South Africa. Captain Andy Dalton's reward, apart from the swag of krugerrands which mysteriously turned up in his bank account, was to have his jaw broken in the second match.

In the 1960 series, All Black captain Wilson Whineray came up against the awkward tighthead prop Piet Du Toit. Du Toit belonged to that school of scrummaging, much appreciated by chiropractors, which believes that happiness is a re-set scrum. Encountering Du Toit and his shenanigans again in the Western Province game, Whineray barked, "For God's sake, man, do you have to ruin every game you play in?"

Every Springbok before or since would answer that question the same way: "Too right - if that's what it takes."

That's what we're up against. This is the real thing.

- NZ Herald

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