If God were a rugby coach almost every New Zealander would be a religious fundamentalist. News coverage often gives headline prominence to sport, particularly the All Blacks, and entire radio stations are devoted to sports talkback, usually dwelling on occasions when Kiwi underdogs overcome better-funded teams from more populous nations.
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Most major sports events are televised. Increasingly these are on subscription-only Sky TV, which encourages a devoted following in pubs.
Anyone with a keen interest in sport or just Kiwi culture should attend a rugby game. Local papers advertise games along with ticket booking details. Bookings for many of the bigger events can be made through Ticketek (w ticketek.co.nz), although, except for the over-subscribed internationals and season finals, you can usually just buy a ticket at the gate.
Opponents quake in their boots at the sight of fifteen strapping All Blacks, the national rugby team, performing their pre-match haka, and few spectators remain unmoved. Kiwi hearts swell at the sight, secure in the knowledge that their national team is always among the world’s best, and anything less than a resounding victory is considered a case for national mourning in the leader columns of the newspapers. The All Blacks made up for their recent relative failure in the Rugby World Cup by winning the 2011 competition on home soil, defeating France.
Rugby is played through the winter, the season kicking off with the Super 15 series (mid-Feb to May) in which regional southern hemisphere teams (five apiece from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia) play each other with the top four teams going on to contest the finals series. Super 15 players make up the All Blacks team which, through the middle of winter, hosts an international test series or two, including the annual tri-nations series (mid-July to Aug) against South Africa and Australia. Games between the All Blacks and Australia also contest the Bledisloe Cup, which creates much desired bragging rights for one or other nation for a year.
The international season often runs over into the National Provincial Championship (NPC), played from the middle of August until the end of October. Each province has a team, the bigger competing in the first division with the minor provinces generally filling up the second division. Throughout the season of the Ranfurly Shield (w scrum.co.nz), affectionately known as the “log of wood”, the holders accept challenges at their home ground, and the winner takes all. Occasionally minor teams will wrest the shield, and in the smaller provinces this is a huge source of pride, subsequent defences prompting a huge swelling of community spirit.
Domestic rugby ticket prices vary, depending on where you are in the ground, but start at around $15, while a similar seat for an international will start at $45. To find out more, visit the New Zealand Rugby Union’s official website w nzrugby.co.nz.
Rugby league (w rugbyleague.co.nz and w nzrl.co.nz) has always been regarded as rugby’s poor cousin, though success at international level has raised its profile. New Zealand’s only significant provincial team are the Auckland-based Warriors, who play in Australia’s NRL during the March to early September season, with home games played at Mount Smart Stadium, where you can buy tickets at the gate. The top eight teams in the league go through to the finals series in September.
Most visitors spend their time in New Zealand from October to March, when the stadiums are turned over to the country’s traditional summer sport, cricket (w nzcricket.co.nz). The national team – the Black Caps – hover around mid-table in international test and one-day rankings but periodic flashes of brilliance – and the odd unexpected victory over Australia – keep fans interested. You can usually just turn up at a ground and buy a ticket, though games held around Christmas and New Year fill up fast and internationals sell out in advance. Tickets start at around $25–30 for an international, less for a domestic match.
Other team sports lag far behind rugby and cricket, though women’s netball (w netballnz.co.nz) has an enthusiastic following and live TV coverage of the Silver Ferns’ international fixtures gets good audiences.
Although more youngsters play soccer than rugby, it was the New Zealand All Whites’ participation in the 2010 World Cup (the only team not to lose a game, with three draws in the group stage) that boosted the game’s profile nationally. For domestic fixtures, see w nzfootball.co.nz. New Zealand’s only representative in the Australian A-League (w a-league.com.au) is the Wellington Phoenix (w wellingtonphoenix.com). The season runs from October to early April and home games are played at Westpac Stadium in Wellington; tickets (from around $40 for a domestic match) can be bought at the gate or on the team’s website.
Auckland is a frequent midway point for round-the-world yacht races and has twice hosted the America’s Cup. New Zealand’s Olympic heritage is patchy, with occasional clutches of medals from rowing and yachting and a long pedigree of middle-distance runners. These days, however, multi-event championships and endurance events like triathlons and Iron Man races seem to dominate.