He sets off, ten months ago, to study in Australia. It is fair to say things do not quite unfold as anticipated. Almost immediately, Covid 19 throws a spanner in the works, forcing universities to introduce remote learning. Harsh, state-wide restrictions then are required to suppress the spread of the virus. Melbourne becomes a ghost town.
Amid lockdown, complete with its stay at home orders, limits on daily movement and lengthy curfews, anything to break the monotony is appreciated. For my son, this involves following professional football. He is a rabid supporter of the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks. And why not, given the Hawks’ propensity for last minute thrillers. On a weekly basis, their colourful head coach, two stud wide receivers and an artful dodger at quarterback attempt to overcome the shortcomings of a flimsy defence.
The only real drawback is the 18 hour time zone difference, which requires anyone in the land of Oz getting up in the wee hours of a Monday morning to view the games live.
I too enjoy gridiron, though I much prefer to watch international rugby. And especially, given the turgid fare currently on offer in Europe, matchups involving teams in the Southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, now it is me who faces the time zone dilemma, recent contests in both New Zealand and Australia kicking off past the witching hour on Canada’s left coast.
I arrive home in the late evening. It has been a long week at school. Though I am tired, my mind engages in a furious tug of war between much needed sleep and staying awake for a Tri Nations tussle between the All Blacks and Argentina.
Rugby wins out. However, I commit to watching only the first ten minutes, secure in the knowledge the South Americans are on a hiding to nothing. The team’s preparation has been submarined by the global pandemic, with a good number of the roster testing positive for the virus. Players are separated from their loved ones and each other for months on end. In addition, the Pumas have not played a proper test match in over 400 days.
Lying in wait is powerful New Zealand, battle tested, back to a full strength selection. Still stinging from an unexpected defeat, the previous week vs Australia.
What transpires is unforgettable. I am spellbound, my ten minute window and any lingering fatigue completely forgotten. The Pumas, dominant from the start, savage their opponents. Led by talismanic captain Pablo Matera, they deliver a performance of surprising cohesion, sublime skill and staggering courage. In a heroic defensive effort, time and time again, sky blue and white missiles flatten All Black ball carriers. Fly half Nico Sanchez not only registers and converts a neat try, but keeps the scoreboard ticking over through his exceptional place kicking.
16-3 Argentina at halftime.
I keep waiting for the dam to burst, for New Zealand to eventually find its rhythm, to steal a result in the final quarter as the opposition fatigues. But slowly, surely, I come to realize this is just not going to happen. With six minutes to play, the peerless Matera, an immovable slab of granite over the ball, wins a crucial penalty to relieve pressure. The heavy favourites, even allowing for a meaningless consolation try minutes into extra time, are done and dusted.
25-15. It is Argentina's first ever win vs the mighty All Blacks, and thoroughly deserved.
The result sends shock waves around the world. The media heaps praise on the Pumas, but trashes New Zealand. The newspapers scream that the All Blacks lack composure, lack an edge, lack discipline. The TV pundits bemoan the fact the Kiwis are too easily rattled, cannot adjust, are outclassed.
Maybe so, but, truth be told, the New Zealand shortcomings are almost entirely due to relentless Argentinian pressure. Pure and simply, the All Blacks do not play well because they are not allowed to.
My iPhone indicates it is now 215am. Sleep be damned, I stay awake, take in the post-game show. See numerous Puma players and coaches interviewed. Emotions raw, faces awash with tears of joy.
Eventually I do head for bed. But I cannot sleep. I am still jazzed. I review the game in my mind, analyzing some of the key moments. Yet, mostly I wonder about the power of sport, and its ability to connect, to unite, to bring happiness.
All around the globe, at this moment in time, there is suffering, division and uncertainty. Millions, their spirits crushed, wait, hope, look to survive. People need examples of strength, the kind embodied by athletes.
Argentina itself is a country in dire straits. Already beset by a crumbling economy, it now battles the surging Covid pandemic and unprecedented health, financial and social issues.
Even if only a temporary form of escape, perhaps the proud Pumas can be a salve of sorts, or a symbol the nation literally rallies behind. In the same way Argentinians can still revel in the exploits of their 1978 and 1986 World Cup Soccer champions, the 2000-2014 Basketball “golden generation”, the 2016 Davis Cup Tennis triumph.
Certainly, sport can make each of us part of an extended family. And being with family is one way to heal.
To think I almost chose to skip this rugby game. Luckily I did not, as I would have missed something very, very special. Though the Pumas' victory may turn out to be only a "one-off", it was truly inspiring, hopefully with some far reaching ramifications.
Whatever the case, whatever the time zone, in every way it was must watch TV.