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Holly Walker - RugbyGirl, Dunedin

Thursday, November 17, 2005

How I learned to stop worrying and love the funny-shaped ball

I used to hate rugby. With a passion. I was brought up in a home that didn’t watch it, with parents who didn’t care about it, and with the mindset that it was a violent, ugly, homophobic, distasteful, meathead game. I wanted nothing to do with anyone who played it, or with anyone who liked it, and was openly disdainful when friends wanted to watch it.

From all these things, let me publicly retreat. I’m not sure how it happened, but I am now, as well as a recovering vegetarian, a reformed rugby hater.

I think it started with moving to Dunedin as a first year student, steeling myself to the fact that rugby would probably be a dominant force and I’d better get used to it. Actually, Dunedin is no more rugby-mad than anywhere else, if you don’t want it to be, but I think convincing myself that it would be was the first step to accepting rugby into my life. The same thing happened with Speight’s, actually.

Later, I gained a sense of community and camaraderie from being invited to watch test matches and Super 12 finals at friends’ flats, something which was entirely new to me. I liked the group anticipation and excitement, the feeling of being part of a national obsession, the beer and chips. Also I realised that my erudite, clever and funny friends liked rugby, and this didn’t make them meatheads. My hostility began to thaw.

By 2003, I’d progressed to the stage of watching every All Blacks game, but still had no idea how the rules worked, couldn’t name many players, and didn’t know what to look for, except for someone breaking away and running for the try line, when it came to watching. And there I stayed, with probably the same level of interest in rubgy as many New Zealand sheilas, until this year.

A combination of things intensified my newfound interest in rugby this year. Working through the excellent Ginger series, I purchased Spiro Zarvos’s How to Watch a Game of Rugby for my beloved, and then read it myself, gaining an appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of the game of which I had previously been unaware. I attended my first real live rugby game, on a whim, at Carisbrook, and was transfixed by the carnival atmosphere and the very different view of the game you get when you see the whole field at once. I had the rules explained to me for the umpteenth time, and actually understood them. I had the chance to practise my watching skills with two games a week while the Lions were here. I met James Ryan. I saw Anton Oliver on Frontseat. And I went to another live game, in a corporate box. Later that night, I walked home from Carisbrook to the city and my boyfriend fell asleep with his head on the toilet floor, but earlier in the night I think my understanding of the game was enhanced.

Which all adds up to me being now, a certified fan, though I probablty still wouldn't wear these. I read the rugby columns in the newspaper, am biting my nails over our bid for the 2011 World Cup, and am feeling genuinely bereaved at the thought of no rugby to watch until next year after this Grand Slam Tour finishes.

Which brings me to another thing: what is the best way to watch a test match played on the other side of the world at an ungodly hour? For the Wales game, we favoured sleep over an early start, and watched the TV3 delayed coverage the next afternoon. This proved unsatisfactory, however, when Hamish McKay’s commentary became too much to take. It’s all very well if you’re playing the 3 Sport drinking game (drink every time Hamish McKay says “Caaarter!”, Clint Brown says “Booyah”, one of them laughs at their own joke or says something truly retarded, and waterfall when Byron Kelleher is on screen – very effective game, actually), but if you’re after an afternoon of quiet code, it really is unbearable.

So, for Ireland, we tried staying up to watch live coverage on sky, starting at 3.30am. Others managed it, but not me. I made it as far as kick off, and them promptly fell asleep and missed the whole thing.

This leaves me in a bind for this England game, which will probably be the best of the tour. I think this time I’ll try going to bed early and getting up for the game, although given the difficulty I have rising at 7.30am these days, I’m not sure how I’ll fare with 3.30am.

Anyway, there you have it. My personal odyssey towards becoming a rugby fan. I still hate the meatheaded culture which sometimes surrounds the game, but I feel I now have a true appreciation for it as a sport. If we get the World Cup, which admittedly seems extremely doubtful, I’ll be there with bells on.