OPINION: It had a crowd. It had a fight. It had a narrative. The match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders at the weekend had it all. It was a reminder of why we love rugby. It was a reminder of what we have been missing out on for most of the season.
This wasn't just another week, just another game. The players didn't bash through their moves as if they were on the training paddock, programmed mercenaries waiting for their salary at the end of the week. A few of them were actually nervous.
There is so much rugby these days that a lot of the tension has been drained from the game. When you are playing a bunch of blokes from Bloemfontein in a made-for-TV spectacle, rugby is not much more than a job. If you fail, next week there's always, what do you call them, the Lions, Xerox Lions, Golden Lions from, er, no, Xerox isn't a place, Gauteng, where's that?
But the Southern derby had an edge. It kicked off late afternoon, at a time when the fans could go nuts and still make an evening of it. Their excitement penned in the players. You didn't know who was really in the zoo.
Some players love that edge, but there isn't enough of it any more in New Zealand rugby. Maybe that's why the All Blacks traditionally struggle in the later stages of the World Cup. They don't play enough fearful footie.
Some players thrive and some get caught in the headlights. Lima Sopoaga missed his first two kicks at goal, neither of them difficult, and whacked a drop out straight into touch. Johnny McNicholl, the tryline straight ahead, took his eye off the ball and spilled the pill like a nervous schoolboy. Do you think they weren't feeling it? McNicholl got a mean pat on the head - any brains in there, boy - from Jarrad Hoeata. Of course, he did.
Then the Crusaders scored. After a 10-minute introduction, no score, the odd mistake, the Crusaders bashing away, the Highlanders holding their line, the first act finished with a try to Jordan Taufua.
Back came the Highlanders. If you were watching on TV, much of the commentary was a treat. Scotty Stevenson had done his research. He didn't bury us with stats, just slipped them in when they were relevant. The Highlanders had made more tackles and missed more tackles than anyone else in the competition, so they don't mind playing without the pill. The Crusaders score more tries off first phase than any other team.
Stevenson is also funny at times. Sometimes too much. The guys who have a lot to say, need also to judge the silences, to let the audience fill in their own thoughts. Peter Alliss, the very fine British golf commentator, had a moment in his career when he overloaded the wisecracks because people had told him he was funny. Less is often more. Alliss came round to it.
So can Stevenson. At times he was very, very good. The Highlanders charging over the line, "And no-one's got the ball, brilliant stuff, it's a mirage maul."
And then the fight. As the players waded in, Stevenson reckoned, "They're just expressing themselves a little bit."
Echoes of Cliff Morgan's, "Edwards and Kirkpatrick, that was nothing, [whack], they were [pause] together."
The Highlanders and Crusaders were together all right.
"Right in front of the zoo," said the excellent Justin Marshall, "They're loving it."
Then out came the yellow card. Sir Richie had been binned. Glen Jackson wasn't proving anything. Just having an excellent evening as a referee.
"When was the last time Richie McCaw was booed on a ground in New Zealand?"
"Went to Otago Boys, too."
"Richie McCaw in the naughty chair. Somewhere a unicorn's just died."
Marshall snorted at that one. Then the Highlanders snorted. Ged Robinson went over, spiked the ball, and raised his forearm to the crowd. Now Patrick Osborne was busting down the sideline and going in at the corner.
No silly signs to team-mates, stoke the crowd. The zoo was going wild. Let's rip up some more seating. From Poznan to Peru, crowds come together when they stand. I have stood on the old Wembley terraces and I have sat with the prawn sandwich brigade. It's a different game.
This epic was a different game. The young Crusaders front row playing like it was their first time. Jamie Joseph, the bridge of his nose cut open (how?), smiling from the dark places in his soul. Jackson wearing one from a prop, having his cheek split open. Nemani Nadolo and Malakai Fekitoa on the Pacific stampede.
And then, right at the end, came Israel Dagg, like the Pale Rider emerging from his past. He had already made a try with a goosestep and overhead pass. He had already missed Osborne down the sideline. This tackle was more difficult. The game was on the line.
Yet somehow Dagg, a tumble of instinct and athleticism, managed to twist Osborne towards the corner flag. We went upstairs and TMO Vinny Munro, who was spot on all night, concise and accurate in his advice, said, "The ball has touched the touchline and goalline simultaneously and therefore the ball is out."
The real miss was how far offside Tom Taylor was in that desperate last play. That kick would have been right in front. But no-one deserved to lose this one. Both teams were magnificent. The crowd booed at the end, but I bet the bars of Dunedin and Christchurch were hummin' on Saturday night. It's a global game but, as the Six Nations reminds us year in, year out, nothing beats a good old tribal derby.
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