Our Man In Rome declares: “”While rugby fervor is growing in Italy, it has been at the frothing point for a millennium in New Zealand. Italy faced the Alabama Crimson Tide of world rugby. New Zealand’s All Blacks won the last two World Cups in 2011 and 2015. They won the inaugural one in 1987. The only thing more fierce than their pre-game Haka, taken from the Maori war cry, is their play. From a nation of only 4.6 million, just less than the state of Louisiana, they have become the standard bearer for a sport that is transcending the globe.”
By JOHN HENDERSON
ROME, Italy — When I visited Denver two months ago, I realized I’d forgotten what it looked like in orange.
I don’t get that here in Rome anymore. Soccer passion has fallen like the Greek drachma. A two-year-long protest from the two teams’ ultras, for reasons I’ll address in a later column, have reduced atmosphere at Rome soccer games to the level of a kids tournament on a back field somewhere.
It proved the point I’d heard often in Europe: Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.
“There is no violence in rugby,” said Alessandro Castellani, the rugby writer for the Italian wire service ANSA and my best friend (Yes, ANSA has its own rugby writer.) “Opponents’ supporters are friends. People inside the stadium are mixed. Everybody is my friend in rugby. That’s why many families go see rugby. In soccer, that doesn’t happen anymore. You don’t see many families at Roma or Lazio games.”
It’s not easy for a sport to break soccer’s stranglehold in Italy. Baseball has had a pro league here since 1948, and it still draws no better than American Legion games. Italy has one of the world’s top pro basketball leagues and draws well in pockets but only garners the occasional story in the national sports dailies. Pro football is strictly at the semipro level. The NFL has never even considered testing the market here.
But rugby? I’m waiting to see scrums form in my local piazza. Saturday’s crowd for the friendly match was not an anomaly. Italy competes every February and March in the Six Nations rugby tournament along with Wales, England, Scotland, France and Ireland. The Italian Rugby Federation receives 20 million euros for participating and sells out nearly every game all over the country. Ten sponsors give another 7 million euros a year. It’s remarkable considering one factor.
Italy is awful. In the 17 years of the tournament, it is 12-72-1. No matter. These days, the rugby team is as loved here as pizza.
While rugby fervor is growing in Italy, it has been at the frothing point for a millennium in New Zealand. Italy faced the Alabama Crimson Tide of world rugby. New Zealand’s All Blacks won the last two World Cups in 2011 and 2015. They won the inaugural one in 1987. The only thing more fierce than their pre-game Haka, taken from the Maori war cry, is their play. From a nation of only 4.6 million, just less than the state of Louisiana, they have become the standard bearer for a sport that is transcending the globe.
No following in rugby is like the All Blacks. Combine Manchester United, the New York Yankees and Lebron James and you have what the All Blacks mean to world rugby. It’s why Ireland nearly declared a national holiday when it beat the All Blacks in Chicago Nov. 6, its first win over the All Blacks in its history, covering 29 games over 112 years. In fact, I acquired a ticket by the blind luck of having a Kiwi friend since 1998. Michael Dixon and his wife, Shawn Bishop, hosted me on a trip around New Zealand and I returned the favor. He didn’t come to Rome to see the Colosseum or Forum. He came to see his All Blacks on their season-ending northern tour and brought me along. Like so many other All Blacks fans, the retired accountant has followed them all over the world, even going to England for last year’s World Cup win.
“If the All Blacks win, the country’s in a good mood,” said Dixon, mirroring what so many Broncos fans have said over the years about life in Colorado. “Back in 1999 when the All Blacks bungled out of the World Cup shortly before a general election, it was widely indicated that was the death knell of the sitting government. And shortly thereafter they lost power.”
“The country gets angry and somber and wants to do something about it,” he said. “This election was only a couple weeks after the All Blacks came home with their tails between their legs.”
But how did such a little country could be so good in a team sport that requires a lot of players? In 1924-25, after rugby had been played in England for more than 50 years, a team from New Zealand took a six-week boat trip to Europe. They spent four months playing fairly established teams around Great Britain, Ireland and France. They went 32-0.
“I wasn’t around then but I suspect that was somewhat of a turning point where they said, ‘Hey, this is something we’re good at and something we succeeded at,’” he said. “And beating the mother country at home was really significant. It was a team called The Invincibles.”
When New Zealand held the 2011 World Cup, towns hosting visiting teams would get decked out in the country’s colors. The Russian team looked around and saw all these Kiwis in Cossack hats. Of course, the All Blacks won, sending the entire country into a state of inebriation that continued until they won again four years later.
“We were referred to as ‘a stadium of 4 million people,’” Dixon said.
We took the standing-room-only bus to Olympic Stadium where we met Mike, a German All Blacks fan who volunteered on Dixon’s animal farm a few years ago. Mike, wearing an All Blacks stocking cap and carrying an All Blacks banner, flew down from his job in Zurich for the night just to watch the game.
However, some of my most heated arguments overseas have been with rugby fans whose testosterone spills over when saying American football equipment debunks their image of toughness. Sorry, mate. You’re wrong. Rugby is a physical game; football is a violent game. The reason American football players wear equipment is if they didn’t, they wouldn’t just have injuries.
They’d have deaths.
Rugby goes horizontal; football goes vertical. Rugby players get gang tackled. They get dragged down from behind. They don’t have defenders get a full head of steam over 20 yards and leap into them like a 220-pound guided missile. No defender gets blindsided by a blocker. During Saturday’s match, I saw two solid hits, tacklers hitting ball carriers straight in the chest. That’s it.
However, the All Blacks’ skill was something out of an instructional video to a novice eye like mine. Three laterals led to their first “try,” or five-point touchdown.” A few minutes later, they had another try from a bearded 6-foot-1, 275-pound Maori named Charlie Faumuina, who looks like he ate Mike Tyson for lunch. By halftime it was 35-3. Italy was down 54-3 when it scored its first try with 13 minutes left. Tommaso Boni scoring on a long run after a deflection. Olympic Stadium erupted as if Italy took the lead. The All Blacks won, 68-10.
Keep in mind, seven of the All Blacks best players retired after last year’s World Cup win and they started only six regulars. Italy played its regular lineup. But then, this is a country where rugby didn’t get established until the 1970s. Today its national league, Eccellenza, doesn’t draw any better than baseball.
Two teams, Benetton Treviso of Treviso and Zebre Rugby of Parma, play in the Guinness Pro12 league with teams in the UK and Ireland. They’re 11th and 12th in the 12-team league. Italy has yet to form a solid base.
“The All Blacks are bigger, faster, but in New Zealand rugby is a religion,” Castellani said. “Here people like it but also Italy always sells out because it’s fashionable. It’s very trendy to see an Italian rugby game.”
Who knows? Maybe Italian designers will bring back 1970s rugby shirts. Priests will some day lateral rugby balls around the Vatican lawn, the inspirational cries of the Haka spilling out over St. Peter’s Square.
(John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel writer. During his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country — with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport (www.johnhendersontravel.com) that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he had some of the best 10 years of his career. He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. He is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon, which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)