Lincoln Tan: Nudge may be needed for newbie rugby fans

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I have been receiving a steady flow of emails from readers about rugby since I wrote columns on being clueless about the sport.

Some expressed their shock and disbelief. Some said they shared my views, while others urged me to give rugby a sporting chance.

However, there was one email in which a reader shared how he converted from being a soccer fan to becoming a baseball fan, which made very interesting reading.

Shah, a soccer fan since his childhood in Malaysia, was introduced to baseball when he went to university in New York. Clueless about the game when he first got there, he attended an open day hosted by a local baseball club for new overseas college students and immigrants.

There he got to watch his first baseball game between the club's probables and the possibles and had all his questions answered by baseball ambassadors, who played host to Shah and the other baseball greenhorns at the match.

After that introduction, he was given a complimentary ticket to the club's first home league game, and he has been hooked on baseball since. Although now Shah lives in Wellington, he tells me he still follows Major League Baseball.

"Pity New Zealand rugby clubs don't share their game to newcomers like the American baseball clubs," he wrote.

It is a pity indeed, considering New Zealand is a sporting nation where its national rugby team's logo is often taken as symbolising the country.

The trouble is, the fame of the All Blacks sometimes far surpasses the game they play. Overseas, people know the All Blacks equals New Zealand, but wouldn't have a clue about the game of rugby - a game which was recently described in a Herald report as a second-tier game struggling to go global overseas.

Unlike soccer, other sports which are popular in New Zealand, like cricket and netball, are also far from being truly global sports.

So although New Zealanders are conditioned from birth to love rugby and the All Blacks, this same passion is often not possessed by people who have only recently moved to our shores. A little nudge may be needed to help them go in that direction.

At a time when spectator interest and television ratings on the national game are on a downward spiral, it would be interesting to see if there would be a marked difference if clubs started a campaign to recruit new supporters just as the baseball club in the US did.

Although I have no emotional attachment to rugby, I am often amazed at how the game is revered here. I remember being in Christchurch when the Crusaders were playing in the finals of what was then the Super 12.

Almost the entire city, from school kids to supermarket cashiers, donned red and black in support of their team.

A meeting I attended at the Christchurch City Council was cut short so everyone could knock off to catch the game, and from the moment the kick-off whistle blew, the streets were emptied and Christchurch was turned into practically a ghost town.

At the local takeaway where I stopped to pick up dinner, the owners were more interested in listening to the crackling radio commentary on the game than frying my fish and chips.

While waiting for my dinner, I also learned from the owner that in the early days when live telecasts were few and far between, three generations of his family and his neighbours would come together to watch a game.

The Crusaders were able to bring an entire city to a standstill. At times like these, I wished I had a better understanding of the game and could be immersed in the same spirit as the locals.

I was discussing last week with someone from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra a proposal to invite members of the Asian and immigrant communities to some of their rehearsals.

She said although the APO has seen a significant increase in numbers of Asians becoming musicians, the number of Asians attending their concerts remained constant, so by providing them with the opportunity to get acquainted with classical music and its musicians, it is hoped that more will come forward to attend future concerts.

The APO deserves a standing ovation for this, but classical music isn't sport. It does not capture the hearts of the people the way sports teams do, nor does it offer the level of joy, agony, heart-stopping and tear-jerking moments that sports does.

In the lead-up to the next World Cup, rugby clubs should start now to engage and interest all New Zealanders, especially the newcomers, in the game. So that come 2011, there will truly be four million Kiwis behind the All Blacks.

And that their victory then will bring the country together like nothing else.

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