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Sport from the other side of the world

I approached Skip a few weeks ago asking if I could join this blog which I’ve been following on and off for a few months. It’s a real pleasure and an education to read through the articles posted here, so I hope my contributions don’t pull down the batting average. As a Brit based in London with a sporting preference for rugby, cricket and soccer rather than football, baseball and basketball, my day to day interests are likely to diverge significantly from people based in the US. Team sports in Europe, and in the rest of the world tend to be run a little differently, and these differences are increasingly coming to public attention, as the lengthy correspondence on Malcolm Glazer shows. I thought I’d open up, however, with my own favourite sport, Rugby Union. I don’t think rugby resonates too much with US audiences- although most Americans who like gridiron tend to like the look of it, from my experience. It’s a surprisingly big game worldwide, and the Rugby Union World Cup claims to be the third largest sporting even in the world.

The biggest single event in world sport in the next 24 hours will be the “test match” played between the New Zealand “All Blacks” and British and Irish “Lions”, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The stadium only has a 35,500 capacity, and it could be probably be filled three times over. Now, New Zealand is a single sport country- rugby is a religion and a way of life, so you might not be surprised to hear that. What’s really astonishing is that half of the stadium will be filled by Lions supporters who have literally travelled half way around the world to be there- there are said to be between 20-40,000 Lions supporters who have arrived in the country over the last two weeks to follow the tour. Consider that there were only 250,000 foreign visitors at the entire Athens Olympics, that the cheapest flight from London to Christchurch would cost you over $1000 and that this is the middle of their winter.

Moreover, to bring a up pet issue of mine (the relative unimportance of competitive balance) these supporters would have to be crazy to think that the Lions will win. Since 1950 the Lions have played the All Blacks 27 times and lost 20 with two matches tied. A tour, which usually takes place every 12 years, usually involves three test matches, and the Lions have only ever won a series once (back in 1971). So why such a big deal? Well, there’s a lot of history behind this (the first tour took place back in 1888), and the All Blacks are worth watching just because they are, and always have been, the best in the world. Moreover, the Lions are really a one-off combination of the best that England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland can produce (normally they play as separate countries) and so it is something special to watch star players try to blend as a team in a few weeks. It’s like one of those Hollywood movies where a team a no-hopers get together and are told they have to take on the best team in the world. I’m not optimistic, but I’ll be camped in front my TV at breakfast tomorrow rooting for the underdogs.