New Zealand’s other rugby team

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Autumn remains a season of migration, but in Britain the timeless rhythms of nature have acquired a modern sporting twist, writes Huw Richards. While birds heads south, a countervailing current flows northwards, bringing the world’s best rugby players – in
both league and union codes – in pursuit of international competition.

The first of this year’s crop of exotic breeds is perhaps the least known, New Zealand’s league Kiwis, who play Great Britain at Loftus Road in west London, on Saturday, launching the British leg of the 2005 Tri-Nations, also involving Australia.

While sharing the same colouring, the Kiwis are perennially overshadowed at home and abroad by their union counterparts, the All Blacks, who are an international brand and who are
to union what Brazil are
to football.

They have, though, in this Tri-Nations already beaten Australia, whose reign as league’s ruthless imperial superpower now stretches back over more than three decades. While the Kangaroos characteristically took immediate revenge for that 38-28 reverse in Sydney by winning in Auckland last week, they were forced to battle all the way for a 28-26 victory. And after theirrelegation to the margins
poor showing last year,
New Zealand’s evident competitiveness should give
the second Tri-Nations a fresh dimension.

They will be 12,000 miles from home on Saturday, and yet on more familiar territory than their hosts since they played Australia at Loftus Road – 200 miles from league’s north of England heartland – last year.

Familiarity with overseas is hard-wired into New Zealand league, which had a touring team before a match had been played at home. Bernie Wood, co-author of a centenary history to be published next year, says: “It started with the ‘Professional All Blacks’ 1907-08 tour, a group of 28 first-class rugby players who took off for a 45-match, nine-month tour to Australia, Ceylon, United Kingdom and Australia again. They learned the [league] rules on the boat trip, only to arrive in Britain and discover there were new changes like reducing the players on
the field to 13 a side. They not only introduced the league code to Australia,
but pioneered international matches in Wales, England and Australia.”

The first domestic match was a benefit for the widowed mother of the tour’s promoter, 25-year-old Bert Baskiville, whose busy life and early death in Brisbane on the way home typified the resource, flair and ill-luck that have characterised New Zealand league.

Union in New Zealand was subtler and less dogmatic than its British counterpart in trying to restrict league’s growth. An amnesty was granted to outstanding former league players such as 1920s Auckland hero Karl Ifwersen and mid-century full-back Bob Scott but at the same time, as Massey University researcher Bill Greenwood has shown, New Zealand union campaigned to deny league space in schools and on publicly owned pitches and spread disinformation about it.

As a predominantly working-class, non-white game, league has rarely prospered but has certainly survived, given transfusions of vigour by New Zealand’s ethnic migrations. First came the Maori. “League gained huge impetus from the Maori in the 1930s as they drifted into large towns and cities and could form their own clubs like Manakau in Auckland,” says Wood.

Then from the 1950s came Pacific Islanders, their influence vividly apparent in the warmly remembered touring team of 1980, the initiator of the second of three golden ages identified by Wood. If the Australians who came to Britain later in the 1980s brought irresistible power to the game, those Kiwis represented an aesthetic peak, playing with a rare stylish fluidity. Their stars, such as skipper Mark Graham and incomparable back James Leuleuai, ended up in Australia and Britain, as New Zealand’s best have done since Lance Todd, brilliant forward Charlie Seeling
and other “Professional All Blacks” remained in Britain in 1908. Indeed Todd initiated a contribution to British league that is commemorated by the British Challenge Cup final Man of the Match trophy being named after him.

New Zealand league’s economic base was too narrow to underpin full professionalism and the Auckland-based Warriors franchise, the country’s only fully profession team that has played in Australia’s national competitions since 1995, has had too chequered a history both as a team and a business to be an unmixed blessing. Wood notes: “Every [Australian] National Rugby League
team has at least a couple
of young New Zealanders
on scholarships.”

Talent also migrates to union. Wood points out that All Black captain Tana Umaga, one of four former schoolboy league players in the union squad that arrived yesterday in Britain for
their tour, was a junior international alongside Kiwi league skipper Ruben Wiki, whose 47th cap today is a world record.

At one level the game
has political clout. New
Zealand’s prime minister Helen Clark’s constituency is league heartland Mount Albert in Auckland, and she greatly prefers its inclusiveness to union’s conservative traditions. Furthermore, Wood notes, Clark “has not missed a Mount Albert club presentation for something like 20 years”.

At another, it struggles, with league’s timetables
dictated by the demands
of British and Australian clubs. Club-mandated medical treatment means the Kiwis are without for this Tri-Series their best young players – Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams – and most dangerous attacker, Bradford’s Lesley Vainikolo.

Wood says: “The three nations have to get their international programme together and play Tests at
a time when all three can field their best players.” But, he adds: “I am very optimistic for the future.”

Whatever ornithologists tell us, some kiwis can fly.

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