Rugby players can surprise you

By Adrian Pratt, US Embassy Wellington

By the time I moved to New Zealand, I’d been away from Rugby for a long time. In the intervening years, Rugby had turned professional and new leagues and competitions had been set up across the globe.

On our first weekend in Wellington, my boys – aged 14 and 11 – sat down to watch the All Blacks play the Springboks of South Africa. It was the first time they’d watched Rugby, and it was a mistake. The ferocity of the game, the bone-crunching tackles – not to mention the terrifying New Zealand haka – turned my boys quickly to thoughts of playing soccer.

Their self-preservation instinct was smart. The very physique of the players seemed to have changed. Back in my day, the guys were big, to be sure, but now they seemed massive and, as the expression goes, ripped. And then there was the attitude of the guys on the field. Rugby matches, put plainly, were fierce.

But then a funny thing happened: I met some of the players. First up were the USA Eagles Sevens players, some of whom play for the full national side as well. Having been exposed to plenty of sports stars in my life, I wasn’t precisely hopeful. A lot of sportsmen at the top of their game can be mono-syllabic, arrogant and have forgotten that what they do as a career is the stuff of dreams for millions of young people.

But, simply put, the Eagles were a delight. They were teeming with enthusiasm – about being in New Zealand, about playing for the United States, about Rugby. As we talked to them they were bubbling over with good cheer and polite, amusing banter. These guys were respectful, and nothing but great ambassadors for their country and their sport.

We admired that.

Surely this was an aberration. People performing so mercilessly on the field had to be barbarians. Just had to be.

But in the intervening months I’ve been exposed to a lot more Rugby players, including some All Blacks. I’ve been singularly impressed with their calm, polite and approachable demeanor. All of them. This week I ran across Rodney So’oialo and Victor Vito. I couldn’t have been more impressed. They too seemed to view themselves as good-will ambassadors for their sport and did a remarkable job. They showed interest when people approached them, engaged in casual and involved conversations.

In an age of spoiled-brat athletes – or worse – in fields as varied as soccer to motorsports, it is delightful to know that there are still role models out there. Who would have thought that I’d find them in Rugby, said to be a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans? These guys better be careful or else they might start getting a reputation. A good one. And, with the Rugby World Cup rapidly approaching, that’s a great thing of course.

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