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Changing gear: George Bridge scores a try. Photo/Getty Images

Just when I thought I was out, the Rugby World Cup pulls me back in

It would probably take serious therapy to figure out why, every four years, my sense of self-worth ends up entwined with the fortunes of 15 men whose names I don’t know – bar a couple of Barretts and a Sonny Bill Williams – chasing a ball around while trying to avoid straining their groins. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather: Part III, just when I think I’m out, the Rugby World Cup pulls me back in.

In these over-complicated times, there’s a pressing new question: how to watch the darned action from Japan? We didn’t avail ourselves of the privilege of paying $90 to see, live-streamed via Spark Sport, what once united us across the lounge rooms of the nation for free.

Some in rugby’s rural heartland were excluded by their broadband speed. This seemed like a slap in the face to viewers in general, and loyal supporters of the code in particular. We weren’t having it and are resigned to hiding our phones and watching an hour delayed on TVNZ for many of the games.

So it was with some schadenfreude that we heard, on opening night, 1 News’ Kim Baker Wilson reporting from TVNZ’s “master control room” with an air of impending doom. Soon punters would be watching the streaming service at home or at the pub, “or so the hope is”, he intoned gloomily.

There had been a run on streaming devices at Noel Leeming and an employee reported that punters were “probably more confused than anxious” about the brave new streaming world.

As it turns out, they might well have been both confused and anxious. As Baker Wilson explained, “For some, Spark’s step so far into live streaming has turned into live screaming.” This Stephen King-like scenario had seen punters take to social media to engage in another national pastime, “venting their frustrations” and posting angry shots of infuriatingly, if artfully, pixelated screens.

Glitches meant that Saturday night’s big game – New Zealand versus South Africa – had to be switched to free-to-air television on the TVNZ Duke channel.

Oh dear. As I write, Spark is promising more streaming, less screaming from now on. With luck, we can concentrate on the message, not the medium, a message delivered, as always, in the slightly pixelated-sounding discourse of high-stakes Kiwi sports-speak.

As the build-up to New Zealand v South Africa built up – “Now the excitement is at fever pitch!”; “Tokyo is obviously a huge city!” – we crossed live to legendary former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry. How would the team be feeling? “They’ll be shitting themselves,” he predicted benignly, adding, unarguably, “And that’s quite natural.” Back in the studio, Spark Sport host James Gemmell seemed to be struggling not to – sorry – piss himself laughing. “It’s a family show, Sir Graham. Let’s keep it above board.”

Nerves and their gastric side effects aside, what a game. South Africa’s early strategy – “They’re just living for slow rucks!” – was blown out of the water by the All Blacks’ precision anarchy: “They’re trying to create some chaos around the fringe!”; “Creating all sorts of havoc on these fringes here!” There were setbacks – “A boot in the face for Beauden Barrett!” – but the All Blacks were chill under fire. George Bridge scored a try, “like he was changing gear on a Cortina”.

We won. You can tell we’re doing well when the newspapers are full of sports writers driven to the sort of mad, ecstatic, slightly erotic poetry only All Blacks on a roll can provoke: “a triumph for daring and darting over boot and bludgeon”; “legs like steel pistons and the wings of Mercury on his ankles …”

For all the mayhem on the fringes, so far the chaotic Cortina that is this All Blacks side is running more smoothly than the cutting-edge technology that streamed that first game. Cry havoc: five more weeks to go.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.