x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Azzam crew have eyes over the seas and far away

The Sunday tension for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team comes from a rugby match 11 times zones away from Alicante.

As the Azzam team prepare for the ultimate race, their heads, and ears, are turned by matters on a distant shore

Along the Spanish Mediterranean coast the forecast calls for gathering tension through the entirety of October, while the forecast for Sunday morning calls for uneasy pockets of a separate tension.

The former tension comes as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and five other teams prepare for October 29 and the outset of the nine-month Volvo Ocean Race, while the Sunday tension comes from a rugby match 11 times zones away and figures to settle principally among New Zealanders.

Kiwis can play some rugby, and Kiwis can sail expertly, all of which explains the artful case of two-fold attention from three Saturdays ago on the Portuguese coast.

Simultaneous with the literally endless toil of preparing the 70-foot yacht Azzam for the planet's endless supply of oceanic turbulence, and with their routine treks from shore to boat to shore to boat to shore, some of the Kiwis who hold down two sailor positions and four Shore Team jobs tracked updates from New Zealand-France group match in the ongoing Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand dominated that, but now comes Sunday's rivalrous semi-final melodrama of All Blacks versus Australia.

The case of New Zealand and rugby long since rates familiar, yet it might know no earthly peer, the very idea of a nation of 4.29 million believing it should beat larger lands.

Moments after France fell by 37-17 and certain wise-guy sorts among the Azzam staff teased that the French may have tanked to ease their knockout draw, Mike Danks imagined distant radio.

New Zealand-raised and American-betrothed and Rhode Island-based, the Shore Team manager did not need to hear in order to hear. "Oh, they're picking it apart right now," he said of the Kiwi radio callers who, unimpressed with mere victory, would ignore the scoreboard to pinpoint imperfections and bestow unsolicited prognoses.

Days later, Danks treated a Northern Hemispheric listener to a description of a Kiwi-Australian ethic, lacing it with emphatic pronunciations of the verb "win".

"It never crosses your mind that you would lose," he said. "You just can't lose. You just can't. Losing's just no good. You've just got to win. That's part of the Kiwi-Australian culture, winning. You just have to win. Just have to win."

Continuing: "We just never expect to lose at rugby. You just never expect to lose. Of course you've got to win. Nothing arrogant about it, that's how it is. You expect to win because that's how it goes."

That backdrop explains the aftermath of the loss to France in the 2007 quarter-finals, when the New Zealand Herald headline foretold a coming "inquest" - inquest! - and the former captain Stu Wilson said, "The country is in mourning," and the former player and radio host Murray Deaker said, "We're a bunch of boofheads playing out there," granting many of us inaugural knowledge of the marvellous noun "boofhead".

Even so, this Sunday chapter seems both enticing and frightening, enticing in that people naturally tried to gauge its likelihood from the get-go, with Ireland's win over Australia auguring a semi-final, and frightening … well, it's frightening more for the Kiwis, for reasons beyond the depressing absence of Dan Carter.

At the probable fire-code violations of packed press conferences this week, certain Australian players - surely inadvertently - ladled on extra dollops of pressure. Surely by slip-of-tongue they mentioned that New Zealand happens to be the home side with the expectant home crowd. As an aside certainly unplanned they alluded to New Zealand's 24-year absence of any World Cup title.

Had they wished to veer off even more innocently into quotation clumsiness, they might have tacked on that in the yawning lapse since 1987, the Wallabies-All Blacks semi-finals of 1991 and of 2003 have tilted towards the Wallabies by 16-6 and 22-10.

That would have been so gauche.

The seasoned Kiwi fans having finished picking at the slow-developing 33-10 win over Argentina in the quarter-finals, here comes a Sunday with the stakes set at remorseless.

Rivalries thrill but also howl with the unbearable abuse one set of fans will endure in the wake. With that onus tilted more towards the Kiwis this time around, it will be possible by kick-off on Sunday to imagine excruciation sprinkled around the world among the far-flung Kiwis, the embassy-employed Kiwis and the Kiwis beside a certain gorgeous sailboat parked at Alicante on the Spanish coast.

All told, it's about as sympathetic as one can feel for any titan.


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