Ask pretty much any rugby fan from across the wealth of rugby playing nations in the world and I have no doubt New Zealand would be top of the list when trying to define the ‘the greatest rugby nation’. Whilst travelling through New Zealand as a Young Ambassador for the British and Irish Lions tour, this is one of a number of questions I have been looking to answer.
I have had the more phenomenal experiences, stayed in 4 different places, met CEO’s of sports organisations, players, Lions managers and a huge number of fans from both sides. All of these reinforced the feeling that rugby has become synonymous with the very identity of New Zealanders themselves. This all started when we met with Brent Anderson, NZ Rugby Football Union, who told us about how he sees himself coming from the region he played rugby for as opposed to where he was born
We also saw how the New Zealand rugby fans have grown to expect success. The amount of memorabilia in the offices, the collective memory of important victories a
ll points to the fact that rugby can influence feeling across the country. Meeting with Sport New Zealand CEO Peter Miskimmin reinforced this perception as we learnt how heavily they fund elite sports as they look to perform on the world stage.
These meetings were a world away from our experiences in Rotorua, where we met with members of the Maori All Blacks team and had a chance to learn the Hakka for ourselves. It certainly is a lot harder than they make it look on the television! The level of feeling and connection with their history was very strong and we couldn’t imagine how terrifying it must be to face that whether it was on the battlefield or now on the rugby pitch.
In Auckland we kicked off with a visit to the New Zealand Football Association headquarters to learn a bit about what it is like for them as a sport’s governing body in a country where rugby is so dominant. I think most of us went into the meeting assuming that football was very much a minority sport here in New Zealand, and whilst we were right in assuming it features far less, we were surprised to hear that in terms of participation they actually have the highest numbers. With a major focus on retention they have seen an impressive maintained 41% increase in the 13-19yrs category. This is combined with an overall 340% growth in futsal participation.
With this, we could have come away thinking football was taking over here in New Zealand. However, the feeling amongst the fans on the night of the first Lions test told a different story!
Rugby may have started its history on the playing fields of England, but no doubt it has found its heart in New Zealand. I have had the privilege to experience this first hand and am sure that the atmosphere will be electric in Auckland on Saturday as the teams head into the final test with the score level 1-1.