Mark Tainton, Paddy Wallace, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney train with children from New Plymouth Boys High School. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Simon Hick's View from the Frontline: Eat, sleep, breathe sport

When it comes to sport in New Zealand, rugby union is only the tip of iceberg, writes Simon Hick in his latest World Cup dispatch.

IT’S BEEN A good week for New Zealanders.

The nation’s darling Richie McCaw got his 100th cap in Eden Park, the IRB told them it’s shaping up to be the best World Cup yet and most importantly, they cut France apart, laying down a marker in the process.

The usual explanation for why they’ve always dominated rugby union is that there’s only one sport, no distractions. It’s not true.

When the Olympics medals tables are ranked per head of population, New Zealand are usually in the top five. Their rugby league franchise, the Auckland Warriors, have just made the grand final in Sydney and they’re also current world champions.

Their football team made the World Cup (where they went unbeaten), they’re decent at cricket and athletics, are one of the top-ranked rowing nations, they usually skipper the best boats in the America’s Cup, and they have several top triathletes.

Participation levels in all sports are high, and you get some sense of its elevated importance in society when you pass their school grounds where there’s usually a rugby pitch, a cricket crease, and a tennis court out the front.

There’s a hardiness about the kids too, a lack of modern comforts, a presbyterian stoicism. They still play rugby barefoot, on bumpy pitches, in mid-winter.

A good example too is in mountain-biking. The world championships were held in Rotorua a few years ago, seen as a surprise choice at the time. The event organisers had seen the facilities though and were attracted by the 150 kilometres of immaculately groomed downhill tracks, jump-parks and winding cross-country trails.

What makes Rotorua unique is that every inch of track was built by a local volunteer, and once they built it, they adopted a section and took responsibility for its maintenance. It’s now a tourism magnet and is considered the best mountain bike resort in the southern hemisphere.

Not bad for what was once a windy hill with a few trees on it, a bit like New Zealand itself.

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