Ah, the Rugby World Cup is here, and New Zealand played its first game today…
Can you detect the uncertain tone in my voice? The slight reserve, pause before speaking that belies I am of two minds? For of this simple, four-yearly sporting event, I have decidedly mixed feelings.
Lace up your boots, tape up your wrists and shoulder your shoulder pads—I’m going to tackle the game of rugby head-on.
The Spiritual Home of Rugby
New Zealand, my home for all but one of thirty-two years, is the self-proclaimed “spiritual home” of rugby—although in this context, a sport more guttural than ethereal, spiritual takes on a slightly different sense than usual. The physical home of rugby of course is England, but as with other sports invented by the “Mother Country,” New Zealand plays it considerably better.
When the New Zealand All Blacks are playing, the entire country, from business to play, closes down, and it is said that a sitting Government will win elections when the All Blacks win, lose them when they lose.
The All Blacks
The New Zealand rugby team are considered to be the “Brazilians” of world rugby, and like the Brazilian football team play the game with a flair and a passion seldom seen elsewhere; New Zealander’s do not just expect their side to win (and win every game), but expect them to win well, with “beautiful” play. New Zealand would be the only country in the world where the phrase “the beautiful game” doesn’t refer to the sport of football.
The All Blacks have one of the highest win ratios of an international sporting team in any sport—74%, and there are still major international sides yet to record a win against them—Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Argentina included.
I am not a true devotee of our national religion, and despite being descended from an All Black trialist grandfather have never even played the sport, but by virtue of my black singlet, black-booted heritage, permit me to comment a little on New Zealand’s national sport, part-time indulgence, full-time obsession.
Grown Men Hurling Themselves Into Each Other
Most would assume that American Football is the most violent, confrontational of sports, but most would not be familiar with rugby, played at a similar tempo and rate of collision, but with a bare minimum of protective clothing. In rugby, where the minimum playing weight is near 200 pounds, grown men hurl themselves into each other repeatedly, and occasionally pass the ball.
To the unfamiliar observer it seems a complicated sport, and has become more so in recent years—several law changes leaving even players unsure of the rules—but in essence the object is to “score tries”—touch down across the opponents end-line with ball in hand, passing the ball backwards but never forwards on the way. Everything else in rugby is secondary.
It is said that New Zealand came the closest it’s ever come to a civil war over the sport of rugby, and those who say so are not exaggerating. The 1981 Springbok Tour—referred to as “The Tour” then and ever since, was a three month visit by the racially selected, white only South African rugby team, and it gave rise to the largest ever protests and acts of civil disobedience in New Zealand’s history.
The fallout from the tour indirectly lead to the fall of the Muldoon Government three years later, and was almost their downfall at the time, the conservative National Party only retaining power by the narrowest of margins—winning despite a minority of the vote due to the vagaries of the then electoral system. Countless marriages and friendships were divided between sporting white lines, and for the first time in New Zealand’s history sport became a source of national shame, rather than pride.
There were, in fact, many peaceful protests around the country, but sporadic violence attracted the press and led to the impression of a nation at war with itself. The police, on the other hand, prevented the release of ‘provocative’ images (such as an officer on fire after being hit by a molotov cocktail). These images were, however, shown to policemen to ‘motivate’ them before the Auckland test. Perhaps because of this, the tour remained a bizarrely civilised breakdown of order. Neither side used firearms or tear gas. There were no deaths, and no serious injuries. Some of the more violent policemen were quietly disciplined. Protesters who might, in another country, have faced charges of attempted murder or treason, were charged and convicted of relatively minor and unimportant disorder offences — or acquitted after defence by pro bono lawyers. Leaders of both sides went on to fill important roles in public life.
I had an uncle in the “Red Squad” as it was called, the arm of the New Zealand Police formed to confront and disperse the protesters, which in effect equated to hitting unarmed members of the public with truncheons—the official protest movement chose Gandhian non-violence, and were a soft target for the specially issued long batons. My uncle left the police force several years later, officially because of stress, but no doubt several broken skulls were a contributing factor.
Growing Up Rugby
So what does all of this have to do with the Rugby World Cup? I grew up in the middle of the 1981 Springbok Tour, actually attended protest marches with flag waving mother and teaching colleagues, and like many of my age group, was forbidden to play the sport for years to come.
Virtually a religion in New Zealand up to this point—playing the game, like church service, was compulsory for boys in the junior years of many high schools—rugby became a social and political issue during my childhood, and for the first time ever people questioned whether manhood and rugby were one and the same thing.
Soccer, who adherents up to this point were usually foreigners, near universally decried as “poofters,” boomed in popularity—New Zealand reaching the World Cup finals for the first time a year later—and this period saw cultural high-points in music and theatre and film, often in direct reaction to rugby and its all encompassing “culture.” It is not an exaggeration to say there was virtually no culture besides rugby in New Zealand before the 1980s—a repeated subject of poet James K. Baxter’s often vitriolic Pig Island Letters fifteen years earlier.
From an old house shaded with macrocarpas
Rises my malady.
Love is not valued much in Pig Island
Though we admire its walking parody.
James K. Baxter from Pig Island Letters, No 2
At my mother’s insistence, I went to one of the few high-schools in New Zealand where there wasn’t a rugby team—one of the few schools in fact without a school uniform—and soon a young, effete “artist,” I looked down my upturned nose at the “rugby-heads” from other schools—beer-swilling, muscle-bound neanderthals as I and my friends saw them.
Over-reaction or exaggeration on my part? Arrogance and excessive pride? I had long-hair in my teens, and during a brief visit to a small rural town, had within half-hour of arriving been told to “get a haircut,” my Cambodian friend called a “gook,” and my other friend’s manhood questioned by the rugby shirt wearing locals. We moved on before insults turned to blows. Rugby and it’s culture of confrontation reached far beyond the four corners of a grassy field.
And so I have mixed feelings about rugby. Growing up hating it, hating the people who played it and the thoughtless, violent culture it represented, I have slowly learned to admire it’s positive side—the courage, strength and skill required to play a most brutal of sports. I admire the discipline and comradeship of those who play it, the breath-taking talent and athleticism at the highest level. At a simple level, I enjoy rugby now as just a game, rather than symbol of culture or identity, and am happy to sup lightly national pride and fervour when it is played.
But you still won’t catch me playing the game.