All Black and Bruised

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It was perhaps the last flickering of the old rugby way. In January 1999, the Australian Wallabies' captain, John Eales, badly hurt his left shoulder in a training mishap. With the World Cup just months away, the game's most respected player risked missing the tournament-a dreadful prospect for Australia, something else entirely for its rivals. One of those, New Zealand, rose above self-interest. "I was extremely saddened to hear of your untimely injury," wrote then All Blacks coach John Hart to Eales. "I sincerely hope that you're back on the field sooner rather than later." Eales did recover, in time to lead Australia to its second World Cup triumph.

It's a fraternal gesture to match Hart's that New Zealand is now counting on from rugby's most powerful men. Last month, the world's proudest rugby nation was dumped as sub-host (to Australia) of next year's Rugby World Cup. The reason: New Zealand could not afford to provide "clean" stadiums to the game's governing body. "Clean" in this case has nothing to do with litter; it means all corporate boxes at all venues must be handed over to Rugby World Cup Ltd.-a subsidiary of the International Rugby Board-so it can lease them to sponsors.

Payday for the IRB comes just once every four years-at World Cup time. rwcl's brief is to ensure that next year's paycheck is a big one. New Zealand will try to persuade the game's guardians that some things are more important than money. "Rugby was built on mateship, selflessness and humility," says a New Zealand rugby official. "The soul of the game is at stake."

When the Kiwis failed to meet contractual terms on March 8, Australia announced it would like to host the event on its own. rwcl meets in Dublin on April 12 to decide whether to recommend that course to the IRB. New Zealanders were stung by Australia's action, though their cries of betrayal have softened into a grudging acceptance that their neighbor has done nothing wrong. "In rugby terms," says former All Black Andy Haden, "Australia saw a gap and went for it." It has little sympathy for the losers. Unlike their Australian counterparts, New Zealand rugby administrators don't have to compete with powerful rival football codes. They've had it easy and haven't needed to become "economically savvy," says an Australian rugby official. "The insularity of their thinking is breathtaking."

Australians speak the language of the new rugby more fluently than New Zealanders do. Australia sprang from the blocks when the game-a last bastion of amateur sport-went professional in 1995. The Wallabies switched to a garish new jersey that appalled purists; night Tests became de rigueur because they rated better on TV than afternoon affairs; players donned sponsors' caps for post-game interviews. But the results on the field were there, too. Under Rod Macqueen, who coached the Wallabies for four years until last year, the team won 82% of its matches-partly, says the Australian Rugby Union, by a change of thinking: Macqueen wasn't so much a coach as a "general manager"; the Wallabies were less a team than a "business unit."

New Zealand rugby cringes at that kind of talk, though it was headed in the same direction until France upset the All Blacks at the last World Cup. The loss created a groundswell in New Zealand against the corporatization of rugby. The buzzwords now are "values," "attitude" and "spirit." The Kiwis have nothing else to bargain with as they lobby the IRB. Australia can offer bigger stadiums with more corporate boxes. "If those councillors view this simply as a commercial issue," concedes a New Zealand rugby official, "we can't beat the Aussies."

But New Zealand hasn't given up hope. Most IRB councillors are blazer-wearing volunteers-men who may sympathize with the arguments being whispered in their ears: that New Zealand is the only country where rugby is the national sport; that while the All Blacks aren't world champions, they are to rugby what Brazil is to football-the benchmark-and have been for 100 years. No one loves rugby more than New Zealanders, the councillors will be told; the diverse crowds at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin will infuse matches between the sport's minnows with more atmosphere than any assembly of well-to-do Australians could. "No doubt the best thing for the Australian economy is for Australia to host the Cup alone," says former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons. "There is equally no doubt that the best thing for rugby is for New Zealand to be sub-host."

More than likely, New Zealand could have done things better. But should this disqualify it from a hosting role? "Rugby is a sport of honesty, integrity and red-blooded endeavor," says ex–All Black Haden. "The most important thing is to protect the spirit that exists between those who've played it. If you can't, rugby becomes just another sport." For many purists, the struggle to save sport's soul was lost long ago. But others can't help but hope for a big victory in a game that has more to lose than most.

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