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Back from Kiwi-land

Vacation notes and Flutie's wacky ways to win a game

Posted: Friday June 3, 2005 3:53PM; Updated: Friday June 3, 2005 5:07PM
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Lote Tuquiri of the Waratahs is one of the rugby players readers think could make a transition into the NFL.
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My head is still in New Zealand, after a month's vacation in that wonderful country, so you'll forgive me if I lead off my welcome back mailbag with kiwi queries (quiwi kweries?). Wine and food kwestions, uh, questions, although always welcome, annoy some folks when their answers usurp football space, so if you click here you'll be transported to that happy world.

From Richard, a serious rugby man from London: "We were wondering if you'd decided to emigrate to New Zealand." This is not as much of a reach as it sounds. The Flaming Redhead and I had dinner in Whangerei with a real estate lady. I tried to open a savings account in the Bank of New Zealand in Auckland (was refused). Take that for what it's worth, and if you say, "not much," that's OK, too.

"The white wines are good, but surely the reds don't support such a move?" says R. of L. Wrong, sir. The best wine we had on the trip was a Neudorf pinot noir, Home Block, and ... oh oh, we're drifting off into wine. Sorry, check out Mailbag No. 2.

Moving on to rugby, of which The Redhead and I saw plenty -- everything we could find on TV (there's a special rugby channel), plus the Highlanders vs. the Australian Waratahs live in Dunedin's Carisbrook, the House of Pain. Yes, it was the Redhead, God bless her, who procured those tickets ... 30-yard line, not bad -- and we sat amidst one of the most polite crowds I've ever been involved with. "We're in the grandparents section," Linda whispered to me. We did our share of cheering for the Highlanders because they had a bagpiper and sang right along with everyone else when they flashed the words of the team song on the screen ..."Welcome to the House of Paaaiiiiiin," etc.

Here's one for you: Not knowing what the parking situation would be like, we showed up waaay early for the contest. Sure enough, they were in the process of roping off the street the stadium was on. So I drove down to the end of the block, where it met the main thoroughfare, and checked out Otago Tyres, which was also a garage. There were some empty spots and I asked the guy there if I could pay somebody to leave my car there. It was a perfect getaway spot.

"No charge," he said. "Just leave it here." Well, I felt I had to do something for this nice fella, so I gave him a pin from the NFL draft. "What the hell's this?" he said, and I explained that it was a rare and valuable piece of the American sporting scene. I mean what could I do?

Anyway, Richard mentions a few of the ruggers from the Hurricanes, the champions of the Super 12 league, many of whom will play for the All Blacks, New Zealand's national side, and wonders if there could be a place for them in the NFL. Lote Tuquiri, the star runner? Great moves indeed, but I think it would be a very tough transition (although when Charley Casserly was with the Redskins he made some serious inquiries about the Blacks' 250-pound Jonah Lomu). Chris Jack, the 6-8 lock? Uh, no. Athletic and rawboned, but I fear the NFL's 320-pound weightroom freaks would break him in half.

Richie McCaw, the speedy forward? Ah yes, now we're getting somewhere, because of all the ruggers I watched these were the guys who impressed me the most -- the compact 235-245-pounders who could run like the wind and do some serious smacking. I haven't seen much international-level rugby live in quite a while, but what really got me this time was the caliber and ferocity of the hitting.

Not so much in the tackling of the ball carriers. It's still a twisting, bulldogging type of tackle, and head shots are severely penalized. I'm talking about the way these guys go flying into the loose rucks and take out anybody who's not paying attention. What's a loose ruck? The milling scrimmage that takes place when a runner is downed. I used to enjoy this part of the game when I was playing because it was a cheap-shotter's paradise, but I never saw anything to match the waves of frenzied forwards pouring into the middle of things that I saw in NZ. They had "special teams" written all over them.

I was talking to an NFL personnel director a few days ago and I told him he really ought to take a look at these guys. He said, "Well, we've a rugby kicker in camp who we're looking at," and I gave him much the same pitch you've just read and he took the news calmly. The problem is why would a dedicated rugger give up his All Blacks competition, which brands him as sort of a god over there, to try out for NFL special teams, at minimal salary? Besides, ruggers get paid now.

Richard's final question: How many NFL linemen could survive rugby? A lot of the sleeker ones, but it would take a special kind of training for a fairly long period.

NZ question No. 2, from Jim of Redmond, Wash.: Which city do I prefer, Auckland or Wellington? An easy call. I like Auckland, but Wellington is kind of magical, with the mists and the hills. Reminds me of San Francisco.

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