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The Story of Rugby, Saturday.

The Story of Rugby: How our national obsession went worldwide

A six-part doco passes beyond our national obsession to canvass rugby’s growing reach in countries like Japan, Brazil and South Africa.

If you thought there was a lot of rugby on television already, buckle up, a storm is coming. The Rugby World Cup is nearly upon us and our national obsession is about to go into overdrive.

But how did we get here? Why is rugby so important to New Zealanders or, for that matter, the South Africans, the French and, as we’re about to see, the Japanese?

These questions and many others are answered in new six-part series The Story of Rugby (TVNZ 1, Saturday, 8.40pm), which is a sweeping, global overview of a game that has travelled a long way from a posh school in England.

The series captures rugby matches in Racing 92’s state-of-the-art arena in Paris and a rainforest in Fiji; in a Brazilian slum and Twickenham; an Ivy League college and at Eden Park.

They were filmed not for the games per se, says director and producer Steven O’Meagher, but for the atmosphere, the crowds and the environment.

“We wanted to show New Zealanders, ‘what does rugby in Italy look like, what does rugby in Brazil look like, what does rugby in Wales look like?’”

It’s been a huge undertaking. When O’Meagher’s sons started asking him questions during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they set him on a quest to understand how rugby came to be played around the world.

Over the six episodes, we will enjoy some 99 interviewees, including former players, historians, journalists and the writer that New Zealanders love to hate, Stephen Jones.

O’Meagher says it has been fascinating exploring rugby outside a New Zealand context.

“There’s going to be so much of rugby spoken of in the next few weeks; the vast majority of it will be concerned with the All Blacks. The series is intended to be a global look at the cultures, the histories and the identities of rugby off the field.”

There are killer facts – such as the decimation of rugby players and clubs internationally during World War I. And, although the men’s game has its origin story in William Webb Ellis, the women’s game has its own first player in Emily Valentine, who played with her brothers in Northern Ireland.

“I think the role women will take in future will be phenomenal,” says O’Meagher.

“The fact that there’s going to be a women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in a couple of years’ time is a testimony of the impact of women in the game.”

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.