They weren't supposed to lose. New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, was expected to take home the trophy from the Rugby World Cup in 1999. But they didn't even make it to the finals. The Sunday Star Times headline read "World Chumps," and the word "LOSER" was painted on the team's bags when they arrived home at the Auckland airport. New Zealand's ensuing economic slump was even attributed to the team's failure.
Win or lose, New Zealanders are crazy about rugby.
Much more than just a game for the Kiwis, rugby helps define the culture of New Zealand. Athletes in Action staff member Timo Tagaloa knows the game and its influence well. Timo competed for Manu Samoa in the Rugby World Cup and also played for the New Zealand XV team, ranked just below the All Blacks. Now the muscular Samoan seeks to reach rugby players with the message of God's love, knowing they can influence all of New Zealand.
"With so many people in New Zealand looking up to sports heroes," says Timo, "they need to see their sports heroes looking up to God."
Timo dreams of working with more athletes like Michael Jones, a household name synonymous with Kiwi rugby and the best man in Timo's wedding. Michael played 11 years for the All Blacks, leaving just before the devastating loss in the 1999 World Cup.
Michael was also a Christian, and New Zealand knew it. He was vocal about his faith, even refusing to play games on Sundays. When he retired from the game, his legend, and his Christian testimony, stayed with the players who followed.
Timo wants to see more players like Michael who are committed to God and influencing others, but his battle for ministry is as tough as the game itself. Timo leads a biweekly Bible study, but spends much of his time competing hard to gain athletes' attention.
"They've got money, cars and clothes thrown at them," says Timo. "And almost everything they go to is mandatory, so when we come along with an optional Bible study, it gets pushed to the side."
Timo has a poster of the Auckland Blues up in his office and he can point around it, naming men who have prayed with him and received Christ. But his goal is to show these players how to live the Christian life victoriously -- and to train them in leading others to Christ.
However difficult a challenge, Timo knows it's possible. He looks at Kevin Senio, halfback for the Waikato Chiefs. "Timo made me aware that there is a place for sports in God's eyes," says Kevin.
"Kevin and his wife, Anna, are the first to say they'll be available for anything," says Timo. Kevin would love to see Timo as an official chaplain of the Chiefs.
But players as dedicated as Kevin are hard to find. Training, games and frequent travel fill their schedules. And there's always the risk that they'll transfer to another team.
Ali Lauiti'iti, a strong Christian and forward for the New Zealand Warriors, spoke to several teammates about his faith in Christ. Then Ali transferred to a team in England, and though Timo tries to pick up the conversations where Ali left off, his opportunities are much more limited.
Timo loves the sport, and he loves to see his team win, but he wants more for the players than just a better game of rugby. He wants to see them living for God and winning people to Christ. The world doesn't need more heroes -- it needs a Savior. As New Zealanders watch the players' every move, Timo hopes they will see athletes who reflect God.