God's own game

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 October, 2010, 12:00am

Actor and winemaker Sam Neill has lived on both sides of the ditch, but when it comes to rugby, his foot is firmly planted in New Zealand. Last time he was here for the Bledisloe with his local wine agent, Lillian Haynes, at Wine 'N' Things. When not making films, he makes wine at his vineyard in Otago, Two Paddocks, which is available in ThreeSixty and Olivers.

I came to Hong Kong a couple of years ago for the Bledisloe Cup and, I have to say, I had a great time. If I wasn't shooting a film [He has just finished The Vow in Canada with Rachel McAdams and Jessica Lange and is about to start The Hunter in Tasmania with Willem Dafoe and Frances O'Connor] I'd be there again in a heartbeat. First of all, because it's in Hong Kong, that most lively and hospitable of cities. For some mysterious reason, Hong Kong is crazy about rugby, so the Bledisloe Cup, one of the world's greatest annual sporting contests, lends an already intoxicating place an air of fevered fiesta. But more than that, there's the rugby itself. This is always a fierce and often bitterly fought competition between two of the great rugby nations, and on a good day you will see the most exhilarating sport imaginable.

It's about more than magnificent sporting prowess and rivalry, it's also about national pride and honour. It actually matters. To Australians, there is nothing more important than sport. And amen to that - it certainly beats religious fundamentalism. And what's more, they are very good at it (witness the Commonwealth Games in India). It's hard to think of any sport where they don't stand out. Well ... let's say gridiron football, but that's only because they prefer better football codes. Like rugby; a game that is often so inspirational, it's hard not to believe that if a higher power had any interest at all in human endeavour then this would be God's Game.

However - and I say this through gritted teeth as a New Zealander - it matters even more than that to us. Loath as I am to admit it, lying as we do, small and barely noticed in the distance off the coast of New South Wales, we do have something of a small man's complex when it comes to our bigger, friendlier neighbour.

Sad but true - many New Zealanders love to hate Australia, or hate to love it - they're very confused by this. That doesn't stop them from going to Uluru [Ayers Rock] and Surfer's whenever possible, and working in Bondi for 10 years. Australians find this amusing. So when we have something, like rugby, where more often than not we can give them a good hiding, metaphorically speaking, it matters. It matters like hell. And hell it is, if we lose. National morale plummets, families disintegrate, alcoholism soars - we spiral into despair.

But if we win, boy do we feel good. All is well with the world, governments get re-elected, and we live happily ever after. Until the next Bledisloe Cup. And then it matters all over again.