One of them is rugby, as passionately followed in New Zealand as the NFL back home. It is the sport, period, end of discussion. The Kiwis treat soccer pretty much the same as their American cousins do, while cricket is followed passionately but a clear and distant second to rugby, the game that New Zealand arguably perfected and has long ruled dating from "The Originals" of 1905. Today the "All Blacks" (the name comes from the all black uniforms) are to rugby what Manchester United is to soccer, the Yankees are to baseball and the Dallas Cowboys are to football, internationally recognized and unanimously despised and vilified but deservedly respected, if grudgingly, just the same.
Rugby is the father of American football only apparently without all the rules and certainly none of the padding developed for the Yankee version of the game. The debate rages over which sport produces the more rugged and physically powerful player though the easiest way to compare the two is simply in the style of play. Football is like repeatedly watching a train wreck in a marshalling yard that involves every car on every track but rugby is nonstop, full on and without pads, a sprint versus a marathon.
While visiting New Zealand last Fall I watched a regular season game played in Japan between the Australian "Wallabies" and the All Blacks. This rivalry ranks with any in the other sports previously mentioned with the exponentially larger Australian nation playing the very uncomfortable role of being the underdog to the more popular and successful Kiwi "side" (side instead of "team"). Tonight's match, broadcast live around the Pacific, would only continue that history and feeling of inferiority for the Aussies who were pasted 32 to 19.
Before every "test" or game the All Blacks perform the bone-chilling native Maori war dance known as the "Haka." It broadcasts a complex set of values and pride while designed to intimidate the opposition. The Haka has an equally galvanizing affect on the fans of both sides who roar as one delirious voice in appreciation for the spectacle but also for the bloodletting to begin.
I tried to play rugby once as part of an organized league. My size made me a "prop," the equivalent of a linebacker who anchors the scrum and opens holes for the runners. I even scored my first "try" (touchdown) and ran half the field untouched and alone. I still don't know if they were amazed and amused that I could or simply didn't want to tackle a runaway train at full speed.
I have that experience to help me enjoy the game but the fact that I could barely walk the next week encouraged me to cut my losses. Can't see the cheerleaders from the playing field, right?
The Haka is way cool, totally cool, but they definitely don't have these in the Land of the Long White Cloud!