As we ramp up for the Rugby World Cup 2007, my first observation is that, perhaps because France will basically be on break for the months of July and August, there does not seem to be much warm up ‘buzz’ here. Cafe banter — French equivalent of water cooler discussions — is not streaming with debate about who will win the RWC and/or how les Bleus will fare. Possibly the two walkovers in June against the New Zealand All Blacks (combined score of 103-21) put a kabosh on French spirit — regardless that the French team was essentially a load of second string players. (As an aside, I laughed when the French coach unloaded on an Australian referee, then wrote an apology letter in French).

Meanwhile, the South African Springboks coach has asked for permission to introduce officially a Zulu-inspired Haka pre-game tribal war dance. Apparently, it’s been in the pipe for several years — although you wouldn’t know it (or believe that it has made a difference) given the dismal recent results of the Springboks against its traditional foe. If you have ever been in the presence of an All Black (all you need is one man) who performs a Maori Haka, you can only be left impressed. A swath of 15 fired up Kiwis on a pitch is another sight altogether. The people I have met who have personally faced that sight on the pitch have, to a man, all professed intimidation.

Between these various Hakas, you definitely get a whiff of the warlike overtone of a rugby match. Much has been said about sports providing a surrogate for man’s innate warrior instinct. What made me write this piece this morning was a comparison between Rugby (aka Rugby Football) and American Football. Aside from the bravado about “no pads” in rugby, I was considering the different attitudes to pre-game warmups. Like all national sports, the national anthem would be a feature — except there is little occasion for the US to field a national American Football team. That said, at the 2007 “American Football World Cup” at which the US, for the first time since its inception in 1999, fielded a team (and yes they won, but only 23-20 in the final against Japan), there was a US team. Anyway, after the national anthem, things diverge in Rugby and American Football (aka Gridiron Football in parts of the world).

In Rugby, at least when you play the All Blacks, the Haka is a must see. It is legendary. Of course, aside from RSA and Tonga, I don’t believe any other national team has such a ritual. But the fact that these three teams have a Haka is enough for me. The Haka truly sets the tone. In American Football, on the other hand, we have marching bands AND cheerleaders. The marching bands are the closest we will get to “warlike.” And, well the cheerleaders? They are the equivalent of the women at home, keeping the homefires burning and wishing on their men at war?

In the final analysis, sports as a dislocated field of war suits me fine as long as it reduces war (there have been many articles–I cite one–written on how cricket has been a great antidote to war). However, that doesn’t exactly seem to be the case these days. At times, sports itself instills warlike behaviour (for example, the rivalry between Turkey’s Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe). And, although we have had a long stretch without a traditional world war, war is on the lips all the time (and more war seems more likely than less war; for example, Turkey and the Kurds).

It might be a little trite, but in the Islam v Western World (including of course Australia, NZ, etc.) conflict, maybe a little sports interest would be valuable. The Iraqi national football (soccer) team makes valiant strides in difficult times. However, I don’t imagine that sports banter is a common feature in Al-Qaeda huddles. Maybe they need some athletic recruits more than MDs for that to happen?

One thing is for sure, as in war, when you like sports, you must announce your colours. Otherwise, you get the less-than-courageous moniker of “neutral.” BTW, I am a Galatasary fan.

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