Sunday, December 1, 2013

Evanston: a cruel day

        Many American readers will have seen two remarkable endings to football games this past week—the New England Patriots coming back from a 24-0 half time deficit to beat the Denver Broncos in overtime; and the Auburn return of a missed field goal for a touchdown against Alabama on the last play of the game; but perhaps the most heart-breaking reversal of the week was in American football’s ancestor, rugby, when New Zealand met Ireland in Dublin a week ago today.
        This needs to be placed in context.
        Starting in 1905 Ireland and New Zealand have played one another twenty-eight times.  New Zealand has won twenty-seven of those contests.  There was a tie in 1973.   The last time the two countries met prior to last week, New Zealand won 60-0.
        I watched a delayed broadcast two days ago of the game on an obscure cable channel, BeIN Sport, where I usually watch European soccer games.
        For my fellow Americans, rugby consists of two forty minute halves and is more of a flow game with near continuous play than American football which is a burst sport:  ten seconds of action followed by a huddled regrouping.
        Ireland dominated the first half of play and was ahead 14-0 within the first ten minutes, a margin they extended to 19-0, before ending the first half ahead 22-7, after New Zealand finally scored a try.
        In the second half the play was more even and New Zealand edged back in.  But with less than one minute to play, the noise from the Dublin crowd began to rise toward a crescendo as Ireland held a 22-17 lead and possession of the ball in the New Zealand half of the field with less than a minute to go.  Watching I knew the result, but even then I couldn't see how it could happen.  Suddenly a mistake by an Ireland player gave New Zealand the ball; and the All Blacks drove the length of the field to score a try in what amounted to overtime.
        In rugby (and for those of you in rugby countries I know the difference between League and Union but don’t want to add unnecessary confusion) a try scores five points and a conversion/extra point two.
        The conversion attempt is not made from directly in front of the goal posts as in American football, but from a point in line where the ball was grounded for the try (literally touched down).  This often results in long kicks from extreme angles, which was the case here.  With time having run out and the score tied, the New Zealand kicker lined up.  And missed.  So that was it:  a draw.  But it wasn't.  Some Irish players charged off their line early, in what was at best a futile gesture, and the Kiwi kicker was given a second chance.  Which he made.  
        New Zealand 24--Ireland 22.
        The crowd was stunned.  Silent.  A victory more than a hundred years coming, that had seemed so certain only seconds earlier, had vanished.  Many were crying.
        The announcers of the rebroadcast I watched were Irish.  They praised the New Zealanders, who had just completed the first undefeated year in rugby’s professional era, for their belief in themselves, that even in those last few seconds they could win, their unrelenting perseverance and determination; but they said that it was a cruel day.
        And it was.