Twenty-four hours out from the do-or-die Rugby World Cup semi-final in Japan, All Blacks fans across New Zealand are beginning to feel a quiver of nervousness.
The country’s state broadcaster assured fans on Thursday that the game would still broadcast on free-to-air TV despite its headquarters suffering smoke damage from a fire at the nearby Skycity convention centre. Meanwhile, watching parties are planned around the country, with a long weekend and 9pm kick-off delighting fans, many of whom must travel from remote areas to pubs and hotels to ensure they get decent coverage.
One fan is so confident of an All Blacks win, he has already had a tattoo celebrating the victory inked, while those working night shifts are turning their phones, internet and TV off to avoid spoiling the outcome. As the game approaches, rugby talk has hit saturation point, with the New Zealand Herald examining the UK media’s analysis of the All Blacks and turning advertisements on its homepage black, while Stuff ran a national world cup “RWC Mood-O-Meter”, rating the current station of the nation as “No Worries”.
At parliament house in Wellington politicians were also gearing up, with the speaker of the house, Trevor Mallard, donning a signed All Blacks jersey to deliver his weekly Facebook update.
“Showing my support for the All Blacks this weekend – does the jersey go well with the speaker’s robes?” Mallard said in his Facebook caption.
Sports and recreation minister and mega-fan Grant Robertson will be watching the game live at Yokohama Stadium and said he was beginning to feel jittery about the outcome.
“Like I imagine a lot of New Zealanders will be, I am a bit nervous but I am also quietly confident the All Blacks are going to take the win,” Robertson said.
“It’s always important with games at this stage of the World Cup to take nothing for granted – England will be giving it everything they’ve got, but so too will the ABs.”
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, will be watching too. Following New Zealands win against Ireland last week she posted an Instagram picture of the victory.
“We’re right behind you for the semis,” Ardern said.
William Nelson, 27, a rugby fan from Hawkes Bay, said England was the only team who could potentially spell defeat for the All Blacks.
“I’m much more nervous about this game than I was about Ireland – I think England are the only team that have a decent chance of beating us and I think whoever wins the semi-final will go on to win the World Cup,” Nelson said.
“I’m excited too as I think it will be a super entertaining game. I just hope the game doesn’t get decided by a controversial referring call – but in saying that I’m glad we’ve got Nigel Owens as the referee – he’s the best referee in the game by a fair margin in my opinion.”
Sports psychologist Steve Jackson has advised fans to keep expectations low to avoid disappointment.
“People forget, they think the All Blacks are the favourites, but New Zealand has a lot less money and resources than many other countries,” Jackson said.
“The All Blacks are actually the underdogs, they are expected to win, which is a lot of pressure, but the reality is they do amazingly well with very little. And I think trying to reframe things as ‘we’re the underdogs going in’ is probably a better way of looking at it in terms of managing anxiety about the outcome.”
Jackson said in New Zealand “more people go to rugby games than go to church; the passion for the game is extreme”, but also that some Kiwis were growing fatigued of rugby’s dominance in the cultural psyche and fed up with the violence and excessive alcohol consumption that is often associated with match nights.
“I do see a growing number of people resenting the prominent place rugby has in New Zealand’s story – that it has displaced almost any other form of culture.”
Jackson said there had been no definitive studies linking poor mental health outcomes in fans if their favourite teams lose, though there was strong anecdotal evidence that more violence could occur in homes and pubs, and moods could dip for days following a significant loss.
Sean Cuttance of Methven in the South Island is a rugby coach and former professional player. He said he would be disappointed if the All Blacks lose on Saturday, but he’ll survive – partly due to his professional rugby training.
“As a coach I do understand fans mental health can take a knock [if the All Blacks lose]. Kiwis love their rugby and it means a lot to them,” says Cuttance.
“But I know listening to the All Blacks themselves and coaching and management staff, they’re very pragmatic about a win or a loss and they’re not so emotional and that’s a good way to lead it..”
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