Chris Benz and Dave Shireley will be filing dispatches from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, in the odd moments that they are sober.
19:30, Sept. 7; Oh Calcutta Restaurant, Auckland, New Zealand: "Can you pass the naan, mate?" We've been in New Zealand for fewer than 24 hours, and already we're sitting in an Indian restaurant with a former All Black. Ten minutes after being introduced, we are discussing the relative merits of the All Blacks' lineup for the first game of the World Cup Friday night. I ask him cheekily (perhaps drunkenly) whether or not a certain winger (Hosea Gear) would've had to have slept with the wife of a certain coach (Graham Henry) to have been left off the squad. My theory, months in the making, was roundly rejected. Bloody hell, I thought. How did we get here?
23:00, Sept. 5; LAX Qantas Gate 48B, Los Angeles Stuffed into the black airport chairs of our gate are 30 or so big Beavers from Oregon State, all wearing their black and orange jerseys, some wearing creative haircuts that suggest some sort of rookie hazing. Like your intrepid Deadspin correspondents, they are looking forward to a few weeks of both watching and playing rugby and getting well and truly pissed. One naturally follows the other. Just as naturally, within minutes after meeting, the two of us and a dozen of them, along with Irish Steve, Jen from Fort Collins, and an old balding white dude, on tour with a wife he described as a "rugby widow," are in a circle exchanging tales of once and future matches and drink-ups. Laughter and profanity are punctuated by the thwack of my rugby ball passing from hand to hand.
01:00, Sept. 5; somewhere over the Pacific: The rings in the back pockets of Wranglers tell me everything I need to know, and as a recovering Midwestern Legion baseball player needing to stave off sleep and the effects of duty-free Crown Royal, I have designs on a dip. I ask Benz—my traveling companion, co-correspondent, and an old rugby teammate—to attract the attention of the nearest Corvallis resident with a bulging lower lip, and thus began the Great Grizzly relay of 2011.
Many of us who've traveled abroad have become fluent in International Sign Language, overcoming language and cultural barriers with overenthusiastic hand gestures and facial expressions. Several of us aboard this Airbus A330 are apparently fluent in what I'll call Redneck Sign Language. I point to my lower lip and make the universal sign (in some universes): pinching my thumb and middle finger together and snapping my index finger repeatedly against the two. Chris taps the shoulder of the guy in front of him, triggering a multiple-row relay of tapped shoulders, removed headphone, and the same phantom-dip-can packing motion. This can be better explained diagrammatically:
Our dip dance complete, we settle into the flight—the same Rugby World Cup highlights on my seat-back screen as on that of Benz and most of the OSU boys—me spitting into an empty Aussie Cab/Sav bottle and buzzing like I was 15 on the baseball bus. After exchanging contact info, we make plans to meet up with OSU boys on the 11th; commemorating 10 years since 9/11 by watching the USA more than likely get demolished by Ireland while we more than likely get demolished by Waikato Draught. Things are rounding nicely into place.
08:00, Sept. 7; Auckland, New Zealand: We touch down on an Auckland winter morning, foggy and brisk like spring in San Francisco, and are met by our first hosts, Kate and her partner Rory. Benz and Kate studied together in Denmark and haven't seen each other for nearly a decade. But they welcome us with both warmth and a measure of Kiwi piss-taking. More importantly, they bring us to breakfast and beer. Thus fortified, we head for the Media Centre, Rory with aviators over his regular glasses, cigarette hanging out the window, tearing down the wrong side of the road into downtown Auckland. The World Cup is in full bloom, every lamppost festooned with the official Maori-inspired signage, and from seemingly every bridge and porch and car window fly the flags of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga. Nary a Stars and Stripes to be found. We are credentialed, thus earning at least a free pint in every pub in the country.
13:00, Sept. 7; Waitemata Harbour, Auckland: Careering over the Harbour Bridge with Rory again at the helm, we rise up into the extinct and dormant volcanoes out of which Auckland climbs, to Waitamata Harbour and a WW2-era complex of artillery and bunkers protecting its entrance. Rory, being ex-NZ Navy, is keen to take us through its tunnels. We toss the footy between us in the dark until we emerge to look out over the harbor. Far below in the blue-green water we are treated to a rare sight; likely in preparation for the World Cup's opening ceremonies, a 30-foot-long Maori/Polynesian canoe called a Waka glides toward shore, paddled by 60 enormous, shirtless men. Their chanting cadence rings out into the hills. Our hosts kindly cart us around on errands, picking up an NZ track phone (for the ladies) and other essentials (beer), and before we have time to shower or properly unpack, we are sprinting toward the closing doors of the train that will take us to dinner with an All Black.
19:30, Sept. 7; Oh Calcutta, Auckland: New Zealand is a small country, especially small to be the greatest nation in rugby's long history. It is roughly the size of Colorado in area and of Greater Phoenix in population. But in practice, New Zealand can feel more like a small town. Apparently there are no more than two degrees of separation between any given Kiwi and an All Black. Which makes it three degrees for us. Kate, our host, went to school with Kieran Read, my favorite All Black flanker, who lives just up the road. Benz, for his part, happens to know a Kiwi who, doing regular business in Alaska, became a part of Chris's similarly claustrophobic community. This Kiwi/Alaskan happens to know another All Black. Two degrees. So it is that we find ourselves, scarcely 12 hours off the plane, on our first night in Auckland, sharing Lamb Korma with one Frano "the Boot" Botica.
Frano is exceedingly friendly. Should we find ourselves marooned in North Harbour, Frano says he'll find us a place to pitch our (literal) tent. His number is the second one entered into our New Zealand phone. Bloody hell. Kiwi kindness seems boundless.
Or it does until we go for a post-dinner, pre-train pint. The two of us manage, without very much effort, to embarrass ourselves in front of the one and only girl sitting at the bar. And a pretty one at that. It goes something like this:
Her: You guys are American?
Her: Here for the World Cup?
Us: Covering it actually (flashing our credentials).
Her (unimpressed): You guys have a rugby team?
Her: But don't you guys suck?
Us: Um, yeah. But ... (mumbling unintelligibly into our beers)
She gives me her number anyway.
I love this country.
So here we are, 24 hours into our World Cup odyssey. I'm Dave Shireley, he's Chris Benz, and we're your intrepid dispatchers from the offices of Deadspin Down Under. Together we'll be filing from the North Island to the South, in stadiums and in bars. We'll be talking to players, coaches, and drunken, singing, body-painting Aussies and Englishmen. We'll certainly be annoying many more Kiwi girls (who don't seem to find our accents as alluring as we'd hoped). In sum, we will be recreationally drinking and regularly reporting from the biggest sporting event in the world you didn't know existed. Now you do. You can thank us later.
Dave Shireley is a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He arrives in New Zealand with 1.5 TBs of downloaded rugby matches on three hard drives and with zero girlfriends. During his otherwise undistinguished career at Colorado College, he was a hooker for three years. That's a rugby joke.
Chris Benz is Deadspin's other rugby correspondent. He has played rugby for several American clubs and briefly in Calcutta, where he fled the pitch in triple-overtime of the final due to a serious case of food poisoning. His team lost by a drop goal. He doesn't really have a home, but he grew up in Alaska.