Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Zealand Football Team Arrives in Ohio

With a 12-7 win against Australia, New Zealand claimed the seventh spot at this summer's Junior World Championship in Canton, Ohio.

It took them 37 hours to arrive, but about 3.7 seconds to get excited.

When they did clamber off their bus from Chicago shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday, a bleary-eyed and travel-lagged New Zealand football team received a special welcome.

Chuck Kyle — the first coach of the first U.S. Junior National Football team — stopped practice and led the charge to the Kiwis.

''Welcome to the United States,'' Kyle said as his players followed and exchanged an international greeting with the Iron Blacks.

New Zealand's trip to the Junior World Championship of American Football would have made John Candy proud: Plane flight from New Zealand to San Francisco, a 12-hour layover in San Francisco (though a bus ride through the city was arranged), a flight to Chicago and a bus to Canton.

''The epic journey,'' Kyle said. ''Unbelievable.''

In several ways.

Consider the reality. A team from New Zealand is playing American Football in Canton in a championship run by IFAF, the International Federation of American Football, which is based in France (think the FIFA of football).

Then consider that New Zealand wages a continuous and spirited rivalry with Australia, a rivalry coach Michael Mau'u calls ''big brother, little brother.''

And that the Kiwis beat the Aussies in Canberra, Australia, 12-7 to qualify for this championship to be played at Fawcett Stadium.

Asked what it meant for the little brother to win in the big brother's national capital, Mau'u shook his head, said ''whew'' and walked away.


''Oh, we want to win it all,'' said tight end Cody Hall, from Auckland.

They'll find out early how they stack up. New Zealand's opening game is 10 a.m. Saturday against Canada, the top seed.

Clearly, the odds do not seem to favor the Kiwis.

But know one thing about New Zealand: It competes with vigor, and sportsmanship. And Kiwis could be the most polite and friendly of any international competitors.

When the America's Cup yacht races (yachting also is big in New Zealand) were held in San Diego, New Zealand competed but did not win. When the team left, residents of the town where they stayed lined the streets to wave goodbye, so charmed were they with the Kiwi ways.

One ritual the football team brings is ''The Haka,'' a pregame dance with roots in the island's Maori heritage.

The nation's rugby team — the All Blacks — do ''The Haka'' before every game. It involves Maori chants and aggressive and angry gestures and steps. The opposing team is supposed to face the New Zealand players during the dance.

In the USA, it might be taunting.

In New Zealand, it's part of the sense of competition that is part of the culture.

''We lay down a challenge,'' Mau'u said, ''and our expectation of how other teams receive it would be that they would stand there, take the challenge on and in some respects bring the best of what they've got on the field.

''That's why we do it at the start of our games. We want to bring the best out, and we want to tell anyone else that we want to bring the best out.''

Internet videos show opposing teams doing a dance in response (Tonga) or lined up shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, to receive the challenge (Australia).

''Each area of New Zealand has their own Haka,'' Mau'u said. ''Ours was written for our own team.

''You'll feel the energy come through.''

It's this element that makes this tournament. Teams will compete from Canada, the USA, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Sweden, France and New Zealand.

All will be housed in Walsh University dorms, where practices are held.

All will have a chance to meet and greet players from other countries.

''That was something I didn't think of,'' said USA linebacker Storm Klein of Newark, a future Ohio State Buckeye. ''We're all networking, exchanging e-mail addresses and all that.''

''They're playing pool, ping-pong,'' Kyle said. ''It's a good thing. I think we're learning what international really means.''

American football has been played in New Zealand for more than 20 years, but Mau'u conceded it's a minor sport, especially compared to rugby.

There, American football is known as ''Gridiron.'' So New Zealand adopted the name for their team with their country's color — the Iron Blacks.

''Hard as iron, dressed in black,'' Mau'u said.

Mau'u said his players are encyclopedias about the NFL.

''But we don't really get recognized because we're down at the bottom of the world,'' Hall said.

From the bottom of the world to the top — in a day-and-a-half. In 37 hours, the New Zealand team changed continents, hemispheres and seasons.

But when the bus pulled up to Walsh and saw the U.S. team practicing, the players perked up.

''You could just see their energy pick up,'' Mau'u said.

Less than three hours later, they were on the field, getting ready to compete.

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