If you wanted to know about namibia, you could fetch an encyclopedia or you could consult Andrew Koumoukelis, a Year 6 pupil at Launceston's Glen Dhu primary school. "Their main exports are diamonds and gold," he says, between races at the school's athletics carnival. "The capital is Windhoek, the population is 1.9 million and the people speak English. That's all I know." But a pair of Year 2 children, Daisy and Jack, are standing by with more. They know which countries border Namibia and some corresponding facts about Romania, Namibia's opponents in the Rugby World Cup match that's coming to town. For a month now, it's felt to them as if the big match is all their teacher, Mrs. Jack, talks about.
It's nice when kids recite stuff about countries that a lot of adult Australians couldn't point to on a map. Yet it was easy to be snarky about the Cup's gift to the country's little island state. Romania vs. Namibia! A rugby nut could have racked his brain and failed to conceive of a less enticing contest. "I've been torn about whether to go," confides Dave McGrath as he waits to buy his $A10 ticket on match morning, Oct. 30. "The feeling that this was a bone to the dog has bothered me."
And why wouldn't it? "Namibians are renowned for their guts and determination," former captain Corne Powell said before the tournament. But the Africans showed little of either when the Wallabies beat them 142-0 in their pool match. Though the game's guardians have fiddled with the laws of rugby in recent years to promote attacking play, the Namibians seemed to be under the impression that tackling had been banned. Romanian rugby, meanwhile, has been on the slide since Nicolae Ceausescu - the infamous dictator but generous supporter of the game - was executed in 1989, and the two teams were always going to make up the numbers in Pool A. They arrived in Launceston for their final match without a win between them and a combined for-and-against record of 49-458.
Local organizers realized months ago that the match-night atmosphere might suffer for a lack of partisanship, so someone came up with the idea of asking Tasmanians to support either Namibia or Romania depending on whether their birthday fell on an even or an odd date. An insult to the public's intelligence? "Personally speaking, yes," says jolly Welsh-born barman Martin Louth, who isn't taken with the demeanor of some of the Romanians: "They act like there's still a bloody iron curtain."
But to run those qualms past most Launcestonians is to invite looks of bafflement. "No one cares about the rankings of the teams," says sports store manager Nathan Hingston, who's twice sold out of Namibian jerseys and many times welcomed Romanian players and management - "nice guys" - into his city store. "All they care about is that their city's part of the biggest sporting event of the year." As for the birthday thing, "that's actually helped a lot of people out," Hingston says. Others have made their choice by their own criterion: jersey or flag preference, who's the bigger underdog, who's signed their football. Vacillator McGrath finally buys a ticket because he begins to see purity and honor in a match between teams playing not for money but for love of the game. Restaurants and pubs are packed in the hours before the 8 p.m. kick-off. Launceston is ready to enjoy itself.
There's an episode of The Simpsons in which the whole of Springfield - sucked in by hype - shows up to watch Mexico play Portugal in a soccer match, then riots out of boredom in the first minute. A hint of that scenario unfolds for the 15,500 people at York Park. All through the tournament, arguably the most compelling scenes have occurred just before kick-off, as the anthems ring out and the players cry and gulp air and look ready to rip and tear. Then the match starts, and soon enough someone knocks on, someone else kicks out on the full, scrums are set and reset and penalties keep getting blown for reasons few understand. After 11 minutes of this, the York Park crowd, more familiar with the helter-skelter of Australian Rules, performs the first of many Mexican waves, by which time it is obvious Romania are going to win comfortably. Until Namibia rally in the second half and manage a try, the biggest cheer of the night has been for the half-time streaker.
But this is a generous crowd, which at full time stands and cheers both teams, and it is clear the players are touched. "The match was slow and scrappy," says Merv Wilcox, "but the night was magnificent." And it isn't over for thousands of fans, who adjourn to enjoy what rugby people call the "third half" - the revelry and warmth that is often more satisfying than the football. Has this been tokenism or inclusiveness? Most locals thought the latter - even this match would have made more money on the mainland. Rugby won't catch on here anytime soon, but two grateful teams - and the people of an oft-overlooked state - had an experience they won't forget.