Although from a country of less than five million people, the All Blacks are respected throughout the world as the side to beat, the champions hardly ever knocked off their rugby number one slot. Masters of the oval ball, their intimidating Maori haka is performed before each match, calculated to inspire awe in the opposition with beefy knees bent, eyes wide, tongues protruding. The squad of massive, muscled, tattooed athletes are household names in New Zealand, nurtured, trained and toned as the global Kiwi sports symbol — the silver fern logo was recently proposed to replace the national flag.
‘Great win last night!’ The country rejoices, quiet satisfaction unites the hordes of black-clad supporters filing out after the game. Kiwi reserve and natural politeness keep the mob from overt gloating, but the yellow sweaters of the defeated Australians are treated with quiet disdain.
My excitement at these great international clashes is recently acquired, and my grasp of the finer rules of the game is slender. Both sons played at school, but I had been a neglectful ‘soccer Mum’ seldom on the sidelines. Sangjay captained the school First XV and even made the under-18 Victoria side for a precious few minutes before a knee injury had him carried off the field.
With a twice broken nose and dislocated shoulder between them, the boys decided discretion was the better part of valour and retired before the terrors of college league games, lined up against the big guys from the Pacific Islands. That’s a relief for a mother, as the injuries get worse as the stakes rise.
My early interest in international rugby centred on the post-match revelry in the busy bars of Edinburgh’s Rose Street that followed the Scottish internationals played at Murrayfield. Not that we actually ever got to watch the game, just shortcut straight to the pub parties afterwards, either celebrating a win or drowning a defeat. In the final year of my stifling Scottish school, dusty classrooms and echoing corridors behind the grim grey façade of George Square, I left with disappointing marks and a general impatience with what I perceived as an oppressive establishment.
My dishevelled school friend Kate and I would rock up after weekend work at her family cafe, a groovy spot serving vegan delights and fresh chopped vegetables from their farm along the Moray Firth. It still exists as a favourite Edinburgh eatery, upgraded to Henderson’s Salad Table and now run by the next generation or two. Kate and I were no doubt wearing miniskirts, deeply inappropriate for the chilly climate, or weird flared trousers fashionable in the 1960s, and unsuitable heels, lethal on the wet cobbles of Scotland’s gloomy capital city on a late Saturday night. We were relieved to be out of the constraints of navy school uniforms, crumpled white shirts and hideous burgundy striped ties.
Kate’s counter-culture Mum was my first conscious contact with the Himalaya that became my home. She had returned from a Karma Cola spiritual quest to India with amoebic dysentery — wonderfully exotic and evocative in contrast to the predictable cold and flu afflictions of the dreary British north. It was not long afterwards that I finished school, graduated from the rugby pubs, found a way to break the oppressive bonds, and set off on my restless journey. It was a long circuitous quest that would eventually lead me to Nepal.