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All Whites Score While Rugby Collapses

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

The firmly hit cross was met by the tall striker rising above the defence who glanced the ball powerfully into the back of the net. Until last Saturday night, Grant Turners goal in Sydney in a World Cup qualifier against Australia in 1981 was my finest memory in watching soccer live.

I thought that was going to be hard to top, but last Saturday night at Westpac Stadium in Wellington my No.1 spot was claimed by another tall striker who rose above the defence and powerfully headed the ball into the back of the net. Rory Fallon’s goal set off the crowd in a way I have never seen in this country.
The reason? Only once every four years does our national soccer team if they manage to come through the maze of qualifying games get the chance to earn a place in the World Cup finals. It is a rare opportunity and to have the final match at home is even rarer. On this unique occasion, the administrators, players and fans had worked together to create the best opportunity for us to win. And win we did.
Bahrain were technically a better side than New Zealand and possessed more pace and individual skill, but they lacked two key ingredients that money cannot buy that the All Whites had in spades – hard work and team spirit.
The atmosphere at the game was sensational and in three moments – the goal, the penalty save and the final whistle, the lid was lifted off the stadium to make what must have surely been the top three loudest live sporting celebrations this country has ever seen.
To fill a stadium for a soccer match in this country is one thing, but to have the crowd match the fervour we have previously only seen on TV overseas (minus the violence) is a major milestone for this nations sporting development. Those of us in the crowd I think sensed the occasion and the privilege it was to have a ticket and got in behind our team as we knew those that missed out would have done.
Bahrain had everything that money could buy, but our teams’ spirit and the support of the fans overcame them. The All Whites were playing for us. Anyone who saw how much work strikers Rory Fallon and Chris Killen went back and did in defence, had no problem filling their lungs up and emptying them in support. It was the least we could do for a team giving it everything they had. 
Hats off to New Zealand Football. So often administrators are criticized for decisions they make that are out of step with the players they look after and the supporters who follow them.
New Zealand Football asked the players where they would like to play the match. They set the ticket prices so that ordinary fans could afford to go. They let the players put their own money onto the marketing campaign and drive it.
Tim Brown’s ‘One Shot for Glory’ idea took hold and the Phoenix Yellow Fever fans re-badged themselves ‘White Noise’ and rallied us to the cause, encouraging the successful ‘Whiteout’ campaign and posting the chants on their website for everyone to be involved. There was no money in it for them, it was just a group of passionate supporters that got in behind their team and took the rest of us with them. Any administrators who have the courage to let the players and fans be equal partners in organizing an occasion such as this deserve special praise.
It is ironic that over the road from Westpac Stadium are the offices of the New Zealand Rubgy Union. Watch and learn chaps. When you give the players a say and let the grass roots fans be a part of the event then something that money can’t buy comes into play. A sense of shared ownership and support that brings out a depth of emotion that comes from the heart. Something that no manufactured expensive marketing campaign can ever achieve.
Rugby tests used to be about the best players from one country taking on the best of another. Now the myriad of friendly internationals played outside of the Tri-Nations and the World Cup often feature wider squad members not the top XV. The success that rugby and the All Blacks built up over the years was the uniqueness of teams often only playing each other every few years. Touring sides stayed longer and played provincial sides to generate another level of interest along with the tests.
That type of format could not be matched by the likes of soccer and was the strength of rugby. With those games largely gone, national coaches have been forced to try out wider squad players in full test matches rather than mid-week games. Add to that the extensive range of promotional activity for sponsors that chew up players’ time and we have a game that has lost its way and moved away from the format that made it so successful in capturing the heart of a nation. 
For to long now New Zealand Rugby has thought professionalism has meant a focus on commercial considerations and the generation of income. This has seen them move away from the grass roots support base that made our game strong in the first place. For too long they have traded on the All Blacks positive image overseas and arranged lucrative special fixtures to showcase the All Blacks, only to show up with a second string team. Foreign fans paying top dollar for an inferior product are not stupid. There are only so many times we can rip them off before they spend their dollars elsewhere. Every time we short change them we are devaluing the mana of the All Blacks that has taken over 100 years to build up.  
Rugby has taken the game away from the people. In years gone buy provincial pride at all levels was put on the line against visiting National sides. The advent of professionalism took those games away. Similarly the National Provincial Championship became the preserve for the larger richer Unions who plundered the playing resources of the smaller provinces who were forced to scratch out a living in the lower divisions playing against each other. Their only link to the outside world of big time rugby was the occasional lop-sided challenge for the Ranfurly Shield.
The resurgent support for this seasons Air New Zealand Cup, was driven by the smaller provinces, who having finally shown ability to compete in the top flight were facing the axe again because they couldn’t afford to party with the rich kids anymore. The people got in behind their teams while the crowds for the larger provinces dwindled.
It is ironic that upon getting home from watching the All Whites gain a place in the World Cup Finals and our sporting history, I tuned in to watch the All Blacks B team take Italy in a stadium full of Italians who had paid to see the A side. The last six minutes of the game ended with a perpetually collapsing scrum on the All Blacks line. This more than anything shows how much trouble rugby is in with muddled laws and meaningless test matches. If the administrators of rugby at all levels don’t start to listen to what the players and supporters want then the popularity of rugby will collapse faster than the All Blacks scrum did on Sunday morning.  
Go the All Whites!! And may the NZ Rugby Union give us back our team so we can support the All Blacks like we used too. The way we did the All Whites at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night.

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