Rugby World Cup: All Blacks' visit to World War One battlefield puts sporting tournament into perspective

Drawing similarity between war and sport is one of those overused, slightly uncomfortable comparisons that pops up amongst the hyperbole of any competition - and the All Blacks are not immune from that.

Battling for victory on the sporting field is completely different to battling for your life on the field of combat and any visit to France is an opportunity for Kiwis to appreciate that distinction.

As the Rugby World Cup looms, the NZ team have taken time to honour their countrymen that have come before them and never left, visiting the historic World War One battlefield of Arras and other landmarks of the early 20th century conflict.

All Blacks pay respects at Caterpillar Valley Cemetary.
All Blacks pay respects at Caterpillar Valley Cemetary. Photo credit: Twitter/All Blacks

The nothern town of France was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles between allied forces and the Germans. The NZ Tunnelling Company played a key role in expanding a network of medieval tunnels under the city, many of them named after places back home to help with navigation underground.

Asked about the All Blacks' visit, captain Sam Cane admits it was a sobering experience.

"Our day at Arras was really special," he said. "It was an incredible experience to have as a team.

"First of all, going to Caterpillar Valley Cemetery... there's over 5000 graves there, close to 3000 of them are Kiwis and one All Black, Bobby Black, so that was quite a moving experience for the team."

Robert Stanley Black played first-five for both Otago and Buller, and played six games on the All Blacks' 1914 tour of Australia, including one test.

He enlisted in the Otago Mounted Rifles in November 1915, later transferred to the Canterbury Regiment and fought at the Battle of the Somme, where he was killed in September 1916. Initially, he was commemorated through a memorial to lost soldiers, but his remains were later identified and buried.

"Then, to go to the Wellington Tunnels and learn about what Kiwi soldiers went through, along with the French, over 100 years ago was also incredible," said Cane.

"They've left their mark on that area and it was nice for us to experience that as a team, learn a little bit about what they did and sacrificed. It also gave us a really clear understanding of the connection between the two countries, because of what we've been through together."

Generally, Europeans understand the part their Kiwi allies played in their survival through two global conflicts last century, so their appreciation of the All Blacks is merely an extension of that respect.

Inevitably, Cane has been quizzed about the similarities between those NZ forces and his own team, as they prepare for their World Cup opener against hosts France next Saturday (NZ time).

"I suppose we've got a mission, we've got a goal and that's to win the Rugby World Cup," he responded. "It's quite a different mission or goal to what theirs was.

"I think they would have been pretty determined men and we certainly have that about us too."

Join Newshub at 7am Saturday for live updates of the All Blacks v France World Cup opener