Watching all blacks is like a religious experience

New Zealand’s All Blacks performs its pre-match haka in front of the Portuguese team at the Rugby World Cup in Lyon, France.-AP

To watch the All Blacks is akin to sitting amidst the hollering hordes as Brazil plays football, or being in home-run distance of the New York Yankees, or watching Tendulkar do his tiptoe routine while hitting a straight drive, writes Rohit Brijnath.

If you can put aside the Twenty20 just for a while, and switch off yet another debate about the new Indian captain, and tear yourself away from Manchester United’s struggle to reclaim its confidence, and interrupt your viewing of Ferrari’s fence with McLaren, then do something you may never have done.

Turn, for 30 minutes, to that foreign oval-ball shaped game (though it’s played in parts of India) of art and muscle called rugby union. And don’t just watch anyone at the current rugby world championships, watch the All Blacks. This, too, is sport as a religious experience.

The older we get, and the more set our preferences become, the instinctive reaction often is to resist unfamiliar sports, as if their foreignness dilutes any pleasure. How can you enjoy something you cannot adequately understand? But you don’t need to know a sport intimately to appreciate beauty, to figure when it is being played well. Even the untrained eye can identify skill and form and grace in most disciplines, though admittedly not the subtleties.

You did not need to own even a minor degree in ice hockey to appreciate, almost instantly, that Wayne Gretzy, so smooth, so unerringly true in his decision-making, was special. You didn’t need to understand the triangle offense, or know basketball jargon, to recognise that Jordan’s Bulls were extraordinary. It just looked good, it looked right, you knew, immediately, yes, this is how a game should be played.

It is the same with All Blacks. It does not matter if, like me once, you think Lock, Prop & Hooker sounds more like a dubious law firm than playing positions. In the mere act of the Blacks moving the ball, the brain registers that something skilful is occurring here.

Maybe it’s in the quickness of the pass, the ball merely touching fingers before moving on, in the sense there is always a player where he should be, in the almost arrogance with which they flick a no-look pass. Once in full flow, it’s like a group of dancers, dressed like Zorro, jinking and sidestepping, stuttering and twisting, producing an often dazzling choreography born both of rehearsal and instinct.

To watch the All Blacks is akin to sitting amidst the hollering hordes as Brazil plays football, or being in home-run distance of the New York Yankees, or watching Tendulkar do his tiptoe routine while hitting a straight drive in an Eden Gardens at full volume. Like them, the All Blacks do not represent mere greatness, they are in a sense the very definition of their sport, the pinnacle.

The shirt they wear is significant, an omen, a warning, a signature, dangerous yet mournful in its blackness. As the Welsh player Gareth Edwards once said decades ago: “There is something about the All Black jersey that sends a shudder through your heart.”

It is, arguably, one of the most recognisable, and dynamic, of sporting colours, up there with the Yankees’ pinstripes, the yellow of Brazilian football and the leader’s jersey at the Tour de France, the green of Australia’s baggy cap and the Masters jacket, and the red of Liverpool and Tiger Woods’ shirt on the final day of a tournament.

The All Blacks’ second signature is the haka, which is a generic Maori term for dance, and is one of the most compelling, and unusual, rituals in sport. Normally, during internationals, anthems play, captains shake hands, and play commences. Here, the opposition must watch this fierce performance, once described by author Alan Armstrong as a “composition played by many instruments . . . hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue and eyes”.

In the traditional haka, Ka Mate, the opening words are “I die, I die; I live, I live”. This is somewhat amusing, for winning in rugby is clearly a matter of life and death for New Zealanders.

This World Cup is vital because the All Blacks, for all their powerful superiority through wide periods of history, have not always translated that into World Cup success. Against rugby’s traditional nations, the All Blacks’ winning record, according to an unofficial website, is astonishing: 66.50% against Australia, 55.55% against South Africa, 75.46% against France, 75.86% against England, 92% against Scotland, 86.96% against Wales, 95% against Ireland.

Yet of the five World Cups held so far, they won have only one, the first in 1987. In 1991, a driven Australia upset them in the semis, in 1995 food poisoning tripped them on the eve of the final against South Africa, in 1999 an erratic France had one of their perfect days in the semis, and in 2003 Australia at home, in the semis, stole past them.

The pressure the All Blacks face is akin to what is felt by the Indian cricket team, yet perhaps even more forceful: the All Blacks are the best in the world and thus expected to win World Cups. This year is no different.

The pressure has told in one practical, yet somewhat unsatisfactory, adjustment to suit modern times. Not always are the All Blacks a picture of attacking flair; often they must simply grind. But on the days they are at their expressive best, they own a rare, brutal, bewitching beauty. No need to take my word. Go look for yourself.