New Zealand Rugby Part 2: Brains, Biceps and BAAcodes


WARNING: Strong Kiwi content including an accent that will melt the hearts of lovers of the Kiwi lilt ...
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IS it possible for the words "romance" and "rugby" to tête-à-tête in the same sentence?

Chief behind-the-scenes enabler of the recent NZ Rugby Stars in NY at Saatchi bash, Sarah Smith, makes a ruck and a maul sound like warm handshake and canoodle as she describes the aims and aspirations behind the program - to facilitate a very sporting cultural, educational and potentially economy-enhancing exchange between New Zealand and the USA, via the medium of stellar student Rugby.

I interviewed the NZ Trade and Enterprise attaché at the ThreeTarts, One of Oprah's favorite micro-desserteries in Chelsea, where treats are no bigger than the average Chelsea toy chihuahua ('s poop).

The November 12 event at Saatchi netted $23,000 to fund two very smart and presumeably large-biceped exchange students via the Play Rugby USA program and Auckland Institute of Technology. However, Sarah demurred when I tried to extract exactly the muscle mass required. And women? Women may apply - the somewhat less-hyped but champion NZ women's rugby team is called the Black Ferns. (The women's cricket team is the White Ferns, the netball team is the Silver Ferns).

But, considering the monolithic physiques of the superstar players Botica, Nikau and Jones who spoke at the event, you know brains alone aren't going to do it.

"He was the meanest, biggest ... 6'6" ...  knocked me off my feet," said Rugby League legend Tawera Nikau, "but fortunately, I was able to get back at him with an elbow to the temple."

Uproarious - if trepidatious - laughter from the audience.

"And what can American students learn from this?" said Saatchi Chief and Chief Rugby Nut Kevin Roberts, waving a glass of the NZ drop and mischievously relishing the irony. That's the thing about folks from Downunder - we don't seem to take ourselves nearly as seriously as folks Upover - even when we ought.

Sarah pointed out that while being "very big and very funny", these players are more of an inspiration, a role model, than a floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall measuring stick. As with Big Arnie as Governor and Sheriff Reagan as former president, charisma is a degree no Ivy League university can bestow - and for their fans, these Rugby stars have it in spades.

There is some confusion between the two styles of Rugby - League and Union. Extensive Googling reveals that Union is more tactical, League is more of a spectator sport. Union allows unlimited tackles, keeping the ball in play, League allows six tackles before the ball switches sides - a more "stop-start" game like American football. Shoulder charges - the kind you batter a door down with when a lover has locked you out - are not allowed in Union, but it's open slather in League. It is said that Union is a hooligan's game played by gentleman, League is the obverse. All I know is that it must alarm 'mericans that no padding is used at all, aside from the gristle you were born with and pumped up at the gym. I hope someone checks my movie above and comments if I've bamboozled my facts at 2:47.

The playing field for this promotion isn't merely confined to a 144 x 70 meter grass stain either. New Zealand is gearing up for nearly 100,000 visitors next year, with a plethora of business and trade events surrounding the Rugby Union World Cup. Oh, the food of that tiny, verdant land! The lambchops, pies and sausage rolls plied at the Saatchi event could easily ruin a vegetarian streak, as long as you avoid watching re-runs of Food Inc...

I pointed out that every man and his toy poodle seems to want to migrate to New Zealand, what with Lord of the Rings and other captivating imagery. How easy is it to defect?

"Depends what you can bring to the country," said Sarah. Ball handling skills may help, but "The All Blacks are doing well this year."

Meanwhile, you can rub (and not collide) shoulders with a bit of New Zealand at the store where I work one day a week - EMS Soho. The New Zealand Icebreaker and Smartwool underwear is flying out the door. There's even a BAACODE on the Icebreaker clothing you can type into the web and locate the sheep station where your garment came from. No sheep was harmed or muled in the making of this garment et al.

No wonder everyone is romancing New Zealand.

Read Part 1 of this 2-part confab

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