Behind the All Blacks' window, the New Zealand rugby team is in pain

Behind the All Blacks' window, the New Zealand rugby team is in pain

” NEC Mergitur fluctuations. » The emblem of the city of Paris could become the emblem of the All Blacks, who are aiming for their fourth World Cup victory. A record that their best enemies, the Springboks, will also covet, this Saturday at the Stade de France. Since Japan's semi-final exit In the World Cup final against England four years ago, the New Zealand boat was often battered by the waves, and its coach, Ian Foster, could have drowned in the sea several times. But he did not sink.

This summer once again, the most famous rugby team in the world suffered the heaviest defeat in its prestigious history, at Twickenham against South Africa (35-7), before succumbing to the XV of France in the opening of the World Cup (27). -13). so what ? Since then, the performances of Barrett's trio and their teammates have progressed well.

This Saturday, they will raise high the colors of their small country of about 5 million people, in which they are the leader even in the (many) countries that ignore the precision of the oval. “The All Blacks are a religion,” says Colomiers second row Jack Wheaton, Pro D2. Everyone in the country will stand up to watch them [il sera 8 heures dimanche à Wellington au coup d’envoi]. »

The 31-year-old Kiwi He knows what he's talking about, beyond his and his brother William's experience (he went through Custer and Brave): his father Gary and uncle Alan, world champions in 1987, are among the legends of the field. However, times have changed since the first World Cup and the current amateur era, where we deal with an oval ball in the winter, and a cricket bat in the summer.

The stadiums are far from full

“Rugby remains the national sport and cannot be separated from the country’s identity, but it is undeniable that it has taken a huge hit in recent years,” he admits. Ian Borthwick, French-New Zealand journalist and writer, author of several reference works on the All Blacks. The number of licensees decreased slightly, and there was also a stagnation in the national team. Rugby fans are fickle sometimes. The defeat at Twickenham shocked a lot of people, as did losing the opening match. But since then, people have seen that black people are on an upward slope and that the entire country is behind them. »

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Yes, the heirs of “Buck” Shelford, Jonah Lomu, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw hold a special place in the heart of the nation that they are proud of. However, behind the very beautiful window, the back room is even more gloomy. “The stadiums are always packed with the Lions, but that's not the case for other competitions,” says Jack Witton. Tickets are expensive, and it's not the same mentality compared to France where the fans are the best in the world. They are amazing and well-travelled, and I've never experienced that anywhere else. »

The current Kolomirin, a traveler who also passed through England, was well acquainted with some of the bare pitches of Super Rugby, which he played in the 2000s for Australian franchises (Brumbies, Waratahs) and “neo-z” (Highlanders). The formidable competition, which was “the laboratory of world rugby” (in Ian Borthwick’s words) during the advent of professionalism in the mid-1990s, has lost its prestige over the decades, and the Covid-19 episode has not helped that. Issues. Today, the Kiwi provinces, led by the Christchurch-based Crusaders, crush Australian and Polynesian competition (Droa Fiji and Moana Pasifika) with relative indifference…

“We are no longer playing against South Africa [désormais alignés dans les compétitions européennes] And the Argentines regret it. Things are improving, but it's not the Super Rugby it was five years ago. » Covid-19 has, once again, damaged the already fragile financial situation of the federation, which was engaged in a long confrontation with its base, which ended up validating the agreement with Silver Lake in June 2022: 200 million New Zealand dollars (about 110 million euros) ) is paid by the US investment fund to share in the exciting commercial revenues of the All Blacks brand.

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A source of concern among young people

The NPC, the local regional championship that is supposed to feed Super Rugby and therefore the All Blacks, is also struggling, as are the youth teams. This is reflected logically for Baby Blacks, whose sixth and final world title in the U-20 category (the category record) dates back to 2017, before the arrival of the Blues, who torpedoed them this summer (35-14).

“Rugby no longer has as strong an influence on New Zealanders as it once did, especially among young people,” says Kimberley Downs, who covers the World Cup for public broadcaster TVNZ. We see that historically popular clubs are now having difficulty fielding teams of all age groups. Several factors could explain this: other sports are gaining popularity, and parents are becoming more concerned today about the risks of concussions. So, even if part of the population still considers rugby a religion, it is no longer obvious that young people will resort to this practice. »

Present in the Land of the Long White Cloud since September 2022, Breton Syprien Féat brings his expatriate perspective. “I don't get the impression that there's as much enthusiasm as there might be in France for the soccer World Cup, or as there seems to be for the Rugby World Cup,” notes the 35-year-old from Finistère, who froths two main islands on his truck. However, despite the time difference, there are a fair number of New Zealanders who watch the matches in pubs while eating breakfast. For the semi-final against Argentina in Wellington [44-6]All tables in the establishment I was at were reserved. There must be 60 or 70 people. Well, there were a few left at half-time, because the result was certain. »

All Blacks center Jordie Barrett wears a Hurricanes jersey against Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby, at a packed Sky Stadium in Wellington, on May 13, 2023.
All Blacks center Jordie Barrett wears a Hurricanes jersey against Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby, at a stand outside the full Sky Stadium in Wellington, May 13, 2023. – Dave Lintott / lintottphoto / Shutterstock

Like the TVNZ journalist, Cibrian saw that locals were also interested in rugby league, netball (basketball's cousin, mostly women) and even mixed martial arts fights. If he had planned to stay in Auckland, the country's largest city, after he ran the marathon there on Sunday, the 30-year-old was a bit disappointed: “I was planning to stay another day or two in the city.” A world title event happened but I don't know in the end. I was told there wouldn't necessarily be huge celebrations. »

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Especially if the ending turns out to be cleansing. “If you play a game like the England-South Africa (15-16) semi-final, you won't have anyone in New Zealand's stadium,” says Ian Borthwick. It is the same as in Australia or other countries, and different from France. You can't build rugby on a fixed, scrum-based game. You have to put on a certain show to get, as they say, “donkeys in the seats.” »

The All Blacks could join the Black Ferns

However, be careful not to paint the situation completely black, no pun intended. There is no need to remind that Captain Sam Kane's team will compete in the World Cup final on Saturday, to win the third title in four editions, after 2011 and 2015, and to return to the roof of the world, where its counterparts have been crowned since 2017. The Black Fern.

Above all, titles aside, rugby remains tattooed in the soul of New Zealanders, whether they are Maori or pakehas (whites). “You find land almost everywhere,” says Frenchman Cyprien, still affected by his experience In Whangamomona's stunning “micronation”., in the west of the North Island. “Every year since 1902, the people who worked on the surrounding farms got together, formed a team and played three games. They even played against the blacks!” Let's leave the conclusion to Jack Wheaton, who deserves it given his background and lineage: “Rugby will always be the No. 1 sport In New Zealand. So yeah, maybe younger guys are playing less. But the best will always play there. »

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