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Rugby Madness

Rugby evolved out of soccer in 19th-century Britain. It was born at the elitist English school of Rugby, where in 1823 a schoolboy by the name of William Webb Ellis became bored with kicking a soccer ball and picked it up and ran with it. Rugby developed among the upper classes of Britain, whereas soccer remained a predominantly working-class game.

However, in colonial New Zealand, a country largely free from the rigid class structure of Britain, the game developed as the nation's number-one winter sport. One reason was the success of New Zealand teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This remote outpost of the then British empire, with a population of only 750,000 in 1900, was an impressive force at rugby, and this became a source of great national pride. Today, in a country of 4 plus million, the national sport is played by 250,000 New Zealanders at club level and embraced by many with an almost religious fervor. It's not uncommon for infants to be given tiny rugby jerseys and balls as presents.

The top-class rugby season in the Southern Hemisphere kicks off in February with the Super 14, which pits professional teams from provincial franchises in New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia against one another. New Zealand's matches are generally held in main cities, and you should be able to get tickets without too much trouble. The international season runs from June to late August. This is your best chance to see the national team, the All Blacks, and the major cities are again the place to be. National provincial championship games hit towns all over the country from late August to mid-October. A winner-takes-all game decides who will attain the domestic rugby Holy Grail, the Ranfurly Shield. If you can't catch a live game, you can always count on a crowd watching the televised match at the local pubs or a sports bar.

The sport is similar to American football, except players are not allowed to pass the ball forward, and they wear no protective gear. There's a World Cup for the sport every four years since 1987, which New Zealand has won once. The New Zealand team's failure to win the trophy in 1999, despite being the favorite, sparked off a huge bout of introspection about what went wrong. More soul-searching followed during the 2002 hosting debacle, after which most of the union board members were replaced. In the end, the 2003 World Cup left the Southern Hemisphere altogether, crossing the equator for the first time with a British victory. In 2005 the All Blacks won every trophy in the cupboard but in 2007 they failed to win the World Cup, leaving the nation in shock. But glory was restored with a 2011 World Cup victory. The All Blacks defeated the French, 8-7, before a sellout crowd at Eden Park.

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