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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Glorious uncertainty of sport keeps us coming back

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The All Blacks haven't lost a game at Eden Park since 1994. Photo / Jason Dorday
The All Blacks haven't lost a game at Eden Park since 1994. Photo / Jason Dorday

According to the prolific Frank Zappa (he produced 99 albums, 37 of them released posthumously, which ran the gamut from Weasels Ripped My Flesh to Everything is Healing Nicely), rock journalism is "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read".

If you replaced "rock" with "sport", this caustic judgment would pretty much sum up the anti-sport brigade's position. Obviously it involves intellectual snobbery: people who see themselves as being preoccupied with the things that matter or engaged in the life of the mind looking down their noses at what Booker Prize winning author Keri Hulme described as "ephemeral crap". You can sort of see where they're coming from.

Why do people get so worked up about what is, after all, only a game, one more in a never-ending series?

Unless tonight's All Blacks-Wallabies rugby test surpasses expectations to the extent that last week's failed to live up to them, who will remember it a year or two from now? Come August 2016 who will remember who won the 2014 Rugby Championship? Who will care?

However, those who dismiss sport overlook the basis of its appeal: what is sometimes rather grandiosely referred to as its "glorious uncertainty".

Take rugby: when you have 30 highly motivated athletes scrapping over an oval-shaped ball while a referee attempts to impose an absurdly complicated set of laws on proceedings, anything can happen and sometimes does. Add foul weather and you can end up with what we saw in Sydney last week: 80 minutes of thud and blunder ending in stalemate.

Where's the fun in that, they ask. But again, part of sport's appeal is that there are no guarantees.

If you go to a performance of King Lear, you're assured of five acts of Shakespearian tragedy. Buy a ticket for five days of test cricket and by the third afternoon you could be gazing upon a deserted arena. You could fulfil your lifetime's ambition by attending a world heavyweight championship bout in Las Vegas and miss the only meaningful punch because you were asking the guy in the next seat: "Is that Brad Pitt over there?"

Failure is part and parcel of sport. Players and teams lose because they don't prepare well or have a "bad day at the office", so called because people who work in offices have them all the time.

Mostly, they lose because their opponent was better on the day. And just as the nature of competition is that for every winner there must be a loser, it's also the reason so many sporting events fall short of being a spectacle: sport often boils down to mutual sabotage with both parties primarily concerned with thwarting the other. Unpredictability creates anticipation which comes in forms the uninitiated must find bewildering.

The conventional wisdom is that the All Blacks are going to turn it on tonight because they didn't do so last week. The assumption is that their sense of having let themselves and us down will have a galvanising effect.

The uninitiated may wonder why the All Blacks had to play badly then in order to play well now. They may also wonder why it doesn't work the other way: if the All Blacks had played brilliantly last week, the media wouldn't be writing them off tonight. On the contrary, the conventional wisdom would be that they have form and momentum while the Wallabies are on the ropes.

Then there's the Eden Park factor. The All Blacks haven't lost at Eden Park since 1994 and haven't lost to Australia there since 1986, ergo victory is inevitable.

Hang on, I hear the uninitiated say; it's just another rugby field, with the same dimensions as the one they played on last week. Besides, if the essence of sport is uncertainty, how on earth can history determine the outcome?

In the unlikely event the uninitiated could be bothered doing a bit of research, they'd discover there hasn't always been an Eden Park factor. In the 1970s the All Blacks had a 50 per cent winning record there: played seven, won three, lost three, drew one.

Okay, so sport generates anticipation which in turn generates discussion of the sort Zappa had in mind, but it's just harmless fun. The point is, those who don't get sport are irritated because what they regard as inconsequential seems to matter so much to so many. In this they resemble the Roman poet Juvenal who deplored his fellow citizens' willingness to be seduced by politicians promising "bread and circuses".

Well, we've all got to eat. And I strongly suspect tonight's game will feature more uplifting endeavour and be less of a circus than the election campaign that civic duty obliges us to take terribly seriously.

- NZ Herald

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