Register Wednesday | December 11 | 2019

Why Rugby Is like Hockey

Or, what to do for fun in Wellington, New Zealand.

I recently travelled to Wellington, New Zealand, for a mountain race. My team, the Canadian team, arrived one week early in order to give our bodies time to adjust to the sixteen-hour time difference. A week may be enough to adapt, but it is a long time to sit around doing nothing, trying to rest and prepare for a big race. Luckily, we had the opportunity to join the locals in the appreciation of a rather important rugby game. The Wellington Lions were taking on the Canterbury Lambs (it’s not the mismatch it sounds like) for the Ranfurly Shield.

A quick primer on this Shield business. It is essentially a challenge: whoever has the Shield can retain it by continuing to win all of their home games. It is taken away by any team that beats the Shield-holders on their home turf. You would think the Shield would be a well-travelled trophy, but the NPC Division One teams play each other only once a season, sometimes at home and sometimes away, so there are only really four or five opportunities for the “Log o’ Wood” to change hands each year. At the moment, it belongs to Canterbury.

Rugby is to New Zealand what hockey is to Canada, only more so—if you can imagine that. the Parade of Nations part of the opening ceremonies for the race I was running, included—in addition to a Maori “welcoming haka” and a song by the Welsh mountain running team—the Mayor of Wellington, Kerry Prendergast, making an impassioned plea that the Lions “bring the Ranfurly Shield back to its rightful place in Wellington.” This is not unlike the kind of outburst that might accompany any public gathering in Toronto or Montreal during the Stanley Cup playoffs (or even in the middle of the summer when there hasn’t even been a game of hockey played in over a year). No matter where you are, civic pride often rests on the fate of the local sports franchise and, regardless of how good that team is, everyone is usually on the bandwagon.

Realistically speaking, Wellington is not the Shield’s “rightful place.” The Lions are a middle-of-the-pack team, while the Lambs have lost only one of their eight games this year. The game itself was quite interesting, though: Wellington jumped to an early lead on a spectacular try by Lome Fa’tau, and kept themselves on top while the teams traded penalties until there were only fifteen minutes left. With the Lions up 14-12, the tide then turned—Canterbury may have looked lost at times but, like the New Jersey Devils, once they stole the lead, it was lights out. In what was reminiscent of the Devils’ Game Six ouster of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2000 playoffs (if only to me, as I watched the game at the Wellington Sports Café), the Lambs controlled the ball for the remaining quarter-hour, going through an incredible twenty-one unanswered phases to win the game and retain the Shield, 15-14. The bar emptied quickly and quietly.

It is a tough job, being a sports fan. The nature of the game (whatever it is) is such that there can only be one champion each year. This means that if you are an Ottawa Senators fan, it doesn’t matter that the team went 7-0 in the pre-season with the best record in the league. For example, in the 2003–2004 pre-season the Senators were second-best, behind the New York Islanders; but in the regular season, the Senators finished third in their division, while the Islanders finished eighth. That the Sens were first overall in the regular season in 2002–2003 also means nothing—they always lose in the playoffs, and most often to Toronto. Unfortunately, it is no better being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, as they have not won the Stanley Cup in almost forty years. Perpetual losers, both teams: despite their small triumphs (the Leafs have made the Eastern Conference finals four times in the last eleven seasons), neither has been able to bring home the big trophy.

When I was in high school, there was much focus on sports. We had pep rallies, buses to football games, we packed our arena for legendary playoff games, and the cross-country team—which I was on—won the city championship every year. But while our teams often won the Toronto district crowns, the big win remained elusive. The football team would lose the Metro Bowl; the baseball team would come within one strike of the Blue Jays Cup; the hockey team would beat UCC for the league title but get their doors blown off at OFSAA, the provincial championships. The cross-country team was one of the few at our school to actually win at OFSAA, though the teams I was in were perennial silver medallists—the first loser, as they say (except for in grade eleven, when an OFSAA win on our home course would have garnered our team a trip to China—we finished fifth).

Last hockey season (that’s two years ago), I was in Calgary when the Flames came within Martin Gelinas’ phantom goal of winning the Stanley Cup. I’m not a big Flames fan, but being in Calgary, it would have been one helluva party (it was anyway, as I remember). Only once has a team I’ve been cheering for won something meaningful—that was the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays, who won baseball’s World Series. I was at the cottage when they did, so I didn’t get to participate in any of the celebrations. They won it the next year too, but by then I didn’t care: suffering from adolescent surliness or something, I guess.

That surliness was a blip, the only time I ever didn’t want to root, root, root for the home team. The following year, baseball went on strike and the Blue Jays have never been the same. It was as if the baseball gods had to make up for the fact that my team had actually won, and put as much distance as possible between that moment of triumph and the October-cold hard reality of the present state of my dear Jays.

So what keeps us coming back? Why do we continue to care when most hardcore sports fans’ have a relationship with their team akin to that of a battered spouse? It all comes down to hope, my friends. That’s why sports are important, that’s why we watch them and play them at all levels, even if we, or the people we’re cheering for, are not world champions—because we hope that we will one day taste glory. Sports, with all of its clichés, is a real metaphor for life. If our team can win, it means that we can too. If it triumphs against all odds, so can we. And if they don’t win the Shield, or the Cup, well, there’s always next year.

John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.