As Wallaby halfback Nic White prepares for Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup match at Auckland’s Eden Park, he’ll need to pack the essentials – boots, mouthguard, jockstrap and, most importantly, ear plugs.
White has become arguably the most unpopular player in world rugby over the past month and the Kiwi supporters will let him know it in no uncertain terms when he takes the field.
It won’t be the systematic, orchestrated bullying they gave White’s former teammate Quade Cooper during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, but ex-Wallaby Berrick Barnes says it will be in the same ballpark.
Barnes, who played alongside Cooper during that World Cup, says he puts sporting intimidation into three categories.
‘There’s the Hawaiians threatening to kill Rabbit Bartholomew and the other Aussie surfers in the 1970s; there’s what happened to Quade in 2011, and then there’s what Nic is going to cop,’ he said. ‘It won’t be as bad as the top two, but the Kiwis will give it to him, that’s for sure.’
It’s a fair analogy.
White was accused of ‘killing a little piece of rugby’s soul’ when he took an ‘Oscar-winning dive’ against the Springboks that got an opponent sent off in a Test last month
The moment that infuriated fans around the world: White hams it up after Faf de Klerk grazed his face while trying to slap the ball out of his hands during a scrum
Bartholomew incurred the genuine wrath of the Hawaiians when he said the Australians would teach them how to surf prior to his first trip to the islands in 1977. Many believe it was only the intervention of respected local leader Eddie Aikau that saved his life.
Cooper committed the cardinal sin, in Kiwi eyes, of shoving and mouthing off at All Blacks captain and New Zealand’s favourite son Richie McCaw, in two Test matches leading up to the 2011 World Cup.
In comparison, White is guilty only of taking an obvious dive which saw his Springboks opposite number Faf de Klerk dispatched to the sin-bin in Adelaide last month. He followed that by furiously remonstrating with referee Mathieu Raynal after the Frenchman had controversially denied Australia victory in last week’s Bledisloe opener in Melbourne.
It’s hardly worth the newspaper front page declaring Quade Cooper ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ that greeted the Wallabies when they touched down in Auckland in 2011, but it has stirred the internet into a frenzy nonetheless.
Ex-Wallaby Berrick Barnes (pictured) has warned the half that Kiwi fans are guaranteed to single him out for some very special treatment at Eden Park
Following the Springboks incident, in which White slumped to the ground theatrically after de Klerk had slapped his cheek while trying to dislodge the ball, Nic White memes took on a life of their own.
There was the picture of a man lying in a hospital bed, with White’s face superimposed and the caption, ‘Surgery to re-attach Nic White’s displaced moustache hairs has been successful. He will be back in training in 4-6 weeks.’
One meme had a photo of a mass candlelit vigil and the words, ‘Rugby fans from around the world gather around Adelaide General Hospital to pray that Nic White pulls through.’ Others had him dressed in a pink ballet tutu or accepting an Oscar and was portrayed as Chris Rock by Will Smith.
The online reaction to last weekend’s confrontation with referee Raynal was far less humorous and more spiteful.
‘Let’s be honest. Nic White deserves it.’
‘Few things give me as much joy as Nic White tears.’
‘Makes me so happy to see Nic White get served a nice full plate of F**K YOU.’
‘Nic White is a pathetic little cretin.’
The Wallaby’s shocker against South Africa launched a tsunami of memes – and guaranteed he’ll be in the firing line when Australia takes on the All Blacks on Saturday
With White and the Wallabies not having won at Eden Park since 1986, he can no doubt expect more of the same on Saturday night.
As Quade Cooper found so painfully in 2011, the Wallabies don’t just take on 15 All Blacks when they play in New Zealand, they take on five million Kiwis.
The New Zealand-born five-eighth was booed, belittled and battered from the time he arrived in the country to the time he departed, his leg in a cast, seven weeks later.
Everywhere he went he was subjected to a concentrated national campaign of what former Australian captain Steve Waugh would describe as ‘mental disintegration’.
The newspaper that printed the ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ poster claimed to have held a survey that rated Cooper top of the list ahead of the French perpetrators of the Rainbow Warrior bombing. There were radio phone-ins, T-shirts and an ‘I Hate Quade Cooper’ Facebook page. A TV panel show asked the question ‘What is a boofhead, and is Quade Cooper one?’ Even then-New Zealand prime minister John Key joined the anti-Cooper movement.
Aussie legend Tim Horan (pictured playing at the 1991 World Cup) has some sage advice for White on how to handle being the focal point of Kiwi anger at Eden Park – the biggest hoodoo ground for the Wallabies
White won’t have to endure that level of animosity – he won’t be in the country long enough, for starters – but rest assured if the Kiwis in the stands, or even on the streets – think they can unsettle him by bringing up last week’s meltdown, they will.
No-one has a longer memory than a Kiwi rugby supporter.
When the Wallabies eliminated the All Blacks from the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Sydney, Australian captain George Gregan delivered the famous sledge, ‘Four more years, boys’ to the devastated New Zealanders.
Eight years later in the World Cup semi-final at Eden Park, after a mentally shot Quade Cooper had put the kick-off out on the full and the clock was ticking down to a 20-6 All Blacks victory, the Kiwi supporters had their revenge.
‘All I remember is 60,000 voices chanting, “Four more years, four more years”,’ Berrick Barnes recalled.
What the Kiwis have in store for Nic White is anyone’s guess, but Wallaby great Tim Horan believes he’ll be up for the challenge.
‘Nic is a strong character,’ he said. ‘He’s a typical chirpy halfback who takes playing for Australia very seriously, but he’s pretty cool as well.
‘I saw him in the street with his parents before the first Bledisloe game and he was very relaxed, just enjoying the experience.’
Horan, now a respected TV commentator who ended his career with Saracens in the UK, believes the three-season stint White had with English club Exeter Chiefs steeled him to cope with the abuse he is receiving at present.
Take that with you: White gets palmed in the face by South Africa’s Damian Willemse last month. It won’t have hurt as much as what he’ll cop from the Eden Park crowd
Quade Cooper (pictured) found out all about New Zealanders’ long memories when he made the mistake of giving it to All Blacks legend Richie McCaw in a 2011 Test match
‘They play three times a week over there and the crowds are very close to the field,’ he said. ‘They can be pretty vocal but you get used to shutting out all the noise.
‘Besides, it’s not what is happening in the stands that you have to worry about at Eden Park, it is what happens on the field. It’s not a particularly intimidating stadium because the stands are a long way from the field.
‘What makes it difficult is the layout of the field, with a cricket pitch in the middle. It just doesn’t feel right, and it always seems to be slippery with drizzling rain.
‘We’ve just never worked out how to play there, but most all it is such a fortress for the All Blacks. It means so much to them to win there. It’s the pride factor. They don’t want to be the first team to lose to Australia there after so many years.
‘They throw everything at you from start to finish. The pace and intensity of the game is like nothing else you’ll come up against. That’s what Nic and the other Wallabies have to be prepared for, not anything that is going to be yelled out from the stands.’