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Monday, July 3, 2017
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“NEW ZEALAND RUGBY COUNTRY – How the Game Shaped Our Nation” by Desmond Wood (Bateman, $NZ39:99)
Any reviewer tackling a book on a specialist topic has to declare an interest – so before I get on to Desmond Wood’s New Zealand Rugby Country, here is the interest I declare. Despite being a male New Zealander of the baby boomer generation; despite going to an all-male (Marist Brothers) secondary school in which there was a strong rugby culture; and despite having spent most of my teaching years in all-male schools where rugby was played, I have never played rugby. In fact (and this shocks many Kiwi men when I confess it), I have never in my life even watched a complete rugby game. At best I’ve seen little clips of games on TV before I’ve switched channels or left the room.
I’ve seen a lot of real football (“soccer”) games, because two of my sons played that game (as did some of my daughters in their younger years) and I sometimes went with them to national matches against touring sides. And (though I never saw him in this capacity on the field), one of my sons reported with amusement that when he was attending an English university, he was dragooned into playing rugby because it was assumed that, as a New Zealander, he must be an expert in the game.
Of course I have read quite a bit about rugby when I have read New Zealand history, because it is unavoidable when the country’s culture and social structure are discussed. I also remember that when I was quite a bit younger, one of my elder brothers (an army officer who did play rugby) bought me as a Christmas present the former rugby-player Chris Laidlaw’s funny and iconoclastic 1974 book about rugby Mud in Your Eye, which I recall as containing much rude nose-thumbing at the conservatism of the game and of the men who administered it. I enjoyed it, but I think it is the only book completely dedicated to rugby that I have ever read.
All this lengthy prologue is by way of saying that I am absolutely no expert on rugby and therefore cannot judge Desmond Wood’s commentary on the game iteself in New Zealand Rugby Country. But I can judge how much it really tells us “how the game shaped our nation” as the subtitle says.
Of which more later.
Desmond Wood, lawyer and sports historian, tells us in his Preface (as well as giving acknowledgements) that he is taking up James Belich’s challenge to write about rugby from a “social history perspective.” (p.5) He is not writing a systematic history of teams, players and tours. His Prologue proceeds into an heroic account of New Zealand winning against the French in the Rugby World Cup final of 2011. He then declares: “The story of how a small nation at the foot of the globe is able to achieve and maintain its status at the summit of an international sport is an integral part of the story of this country. It is descriptive of its society and the aspirations of the people who have made it what it is.” (p.10)
This raises the expectation that this book will consider the impact of rugby on New Zealand society at large. At first this expectation appears to be met as Wood, in his Introduction, links the game to the New Zealand “classlessness” that transformed what had been a “gentlemanly” game, born in English public schools, into a game for the masses. His first chapter (“Beginnings”) sees New Zealand’s 19th century adoption of the game as reflecting the social aspirations of a flood of middle-class settlers in the late nineteenth century (1850s-1880s). Rugby first built its strength in New Zealand towns and cities, where the middle-class lived and where the most enduring clubs were founded (small town and country clubs tended to be more ephemeral). There was a big boost to the foundation of clubs in the 1880s, the era of Vogelism, assisted immigration and big public works programmes on the back of loans from London. Provincial unions had coalesced into the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) by 1892.
When Wood launches into rugby’s glory years in New Zealand (Chapter 2 – “Rugby’s Warm Embrace”) up to about the middle of the twentieth century, most of the class-aware commentary disappears. This long chapter concerns itself especially with tours of New Zealand by overseas teams and overseas tours by New Zealand teams. From the 1880s onwards there were tours of New Zealand by club teams (not national representatives) from Australia and elsewhere, and in 1903 there was the first New Zealand rep. team touring overseas. The black jersey with the silver fern (originally accompanied by white knickerbockers) was already adopted by 1890s for the national team, and once black shorts replaced the white knickerbockers, the team was already referred to informally as “All Blacks” before the term was used in print by an English provincial newspaper during the team’s 1905 tour of Britain.
According to Desmond Wood, the two most influential tours by the All Blacks in the early 20th century were in 1905 and 1924. In the 1905 tour the All Blacks won 34 out of 35 matches against British sides. On the whole, says Wood, the British were surprised as they had expected the raw colonials to be easily defeated. However, there was much hostile comment in the British press on the aggressiveness and “illegality” of much of the New Zealanders’ play. This became the enduring British image of the All Blacks – the rough colonials who had subverted the public school game by turning it into rough-house. On the other hand, Wood also notes the fact that the British were equally surprised by the innovative tactics and the All Blacks’ well-drilled playing. It seemed to come as a surprise that the colonial team had been so well coached. (When I read this section of Wood’s book, I couldn’t help remembering that old satirical song by Flanders and Swann about how the English dislike foreign sports teams because “they practice beforehand and spoil all the fun”.) Incidentally, to his great credit, Wood hastily sweeps aside all the inane and inflated commentary that has been written about the disallowed try in the 1905 match against Wales (p.47), the only match that the touring team lost.
In passing, Wood makes it clear that commercialism impinged on the “amateur” game from very early in its story. Even before the First World War, some Rugby Union players deserted to “the other game” Rugby League when they knew they could be paid better. (p.64) Wood goes on to chronicle the introduction of the Ranfurly Shield for inter-provincial matches in 1902, the soldier’s teams in the First and Second World Wars, and the unbeaten All Blacks team which toured Britain in 1924.
In the midst of this, however, there are two big questions which Wood chooses to tackle. (1.) Did the game encourage a dated stereotype of (rural and farming) New Zealand maleness? And (2.) Did the game encourage violence?
With regard to (1.) Wood takes a number of pages (pp.75-82) stridently refuting Jock Phillips’ thesis in his book A Man’s Country? that rugby players represented the farming, pioneering side of New Zealand and its attendant hardy virtues. Wood shows that the great majority of New Zealand reps. were city boys and other townies, often from professions. Strictly speaking, Wood is correct, but to me his answer somehow misses the point. Even if the majority of best-known reps. were townies, the image of the game that was promoted among the general public was still a retro one of the rural “hard man”. Remember, until very recently, you saw TV ads of farmer Colin Meads planting fence posts. You did not see TV ads of All Blacks going about their townie business. It is only very recently indeed that we have begun to see campaigns starring sensitive new-breed All Blacks preaching against domestic violence or promoting consideration for sufferers of depression.
With regards to (2.), on-field violence and biffo, Wood remarks correctly that “… the single most influential factor limiting the incidence of violence in the sport appears to have been the advent of television.” (p.85) His own account tells us that, until the age of action replays (often slow-mo ), where a huge viewing audience could see foul play in detail, most appeals from the NZRFU and elsewhere to limit violence fell on deaf ears. To me it does seem a little facile for Wood to sign off this chapter with Tana Umaga’s flip reply to an Aussie referee; “We are not playing tiddlywinks here, mate. This is a contact sport.” (p.86).
Much to my surprise, the longest single chapter in the book (65 pages) is the third one, which chronicles the way the New Zealand game became mired in controversy and almost broke under the strain. It is called “The Unravelling – South Africa and Why It Mattered”.
As early as 1919, South African rugby officials signalling that they did not want any Maori or other “natives” in visiting New Zealand sides. The Springboks in the 1920s were “disgusted” when they were required to play a Maori team. When there was a 1928 tour of South Africa by the All Blacks, the NZRFU excluded three Maori players, including George Nepia (a famous player known even to totally non-rugby people like this reviewer). By 1936, Maori groups lobbied to have no Maori competition matches against Springboks because they objected to the (white) South Africans’ attitudes. But even after the Second World War, and as full apartheid was implemented on South Africa, the NZRFU continued to acquiesce in the South African Rugby Board’s (SARB’s) request that there be no Maori in touring sides. So Maori were excluded from tours to South Africa in 1949 and 1960.
But attitudes in New Zealand were changing towards South Africa, after the 1956 Springbok tour where there was the clearest bitter rivalry between the two national teams. By 1960, there were the “No Maoris, No Tour” protests when the NZRFU sent off another team of all white All Blacks to South Africa. There followed a decade in which the SARB promised it would accept Maori players in touring New Zealand teams (the “honorary white” status was mooted), but they still did not do so. By the 1970s, the issue was clearly no longer one about the inclusion of Maori players. The issue was whether there should be New Zealand sporting contacts with South Africa at all, as the apartheid regime was being boycotted in sport by most of the world. Increasingly the issue divided the country and there was more pressure for the government to intervene and no longer allow the NZRFU to make decisions on tours.
Came 1981. When he made a final broadcast appeal to the NZRFU, who were on the point of accepting a Springbok tour of New Zealand, prime minister Robert Muldoon’s words seemed opposed to the tour, but his final appeal to the NZRFU really gave a clear indication that there would be no government intervention. The 1981 tour went ahead with huge protests and much civil disruption. Desmond Wood makes it clear that by in effect allowing the tour to go ahead, the main aim of Muldoon was to secure the support of marginal and mainly rural seats in a forthcomng general election. (Showing, pace Wood’s earlier argument, that the strongest appeal of the game was still with a rural heartland.) Really the 1981 debacle ended naivete about the national implications of sporting contacts. By the late 1980s apartheid was collapsing and that effectively ended the controversy as we moved into the era of apology.
Desmond Wood says “A game for which New Zealanders were widely admired was hampered by less admirable qualities, like self-interest and closed minds…. [the 1981 tour] exposed far from desirable qualities in a nation and a people who thought they were better than that.” (p.150) He also notes that 75 years of rugby competitions with South Africa “required a forgetting, a discounting, of what it really meant to be a New Zealander.” (p.151)
I assume that the length Wood devotes to this issue is intended to show us how momentous rugby was in the way the national consciousness was shaped. But does this really show “how the game shaped our nation”? Surely it was largely a reaction against the game, and against its attendant culture, that in this case did the shaping.
Most of the rest of New Zealand Rugby Country is less contentious. Half of the chapter called “Race and Demographics” is a long consideration of Maori “native” teams and their players and the respect they gained. There are only a few pages on the increasing input of Pacific Islanders (Michael Jones etc.) There is a tentative awareness at the end of this chapter that the growing population of Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian) New Zealanders are largely uninterested in rugby, and this will doubtless lead in due course to fewer spectators of the game.
The chapter called “Changing Society – Changing Game” promises some insight on how rugby affects society at large, but it is mainly about how society at large affects rugby. Wood discusses women as spectators and enthusiastic supporters of the game and the fact that there was the occasional women’s rugby team. But women’s rugby as a sport got going on a national level only in the 1990s. The NZRFU took the women’s game under its wing in 1992, and in 1998 the name Black Ferns was adopted. As defensive as he was in documenting the urban basis of the game, Desmond Wood at pains to point out (pp.182-185) the number of university-educated women who like the game and its strength in Auckland. (Nearly 18,000 New Zealand women were playing rugby by 2014).
The “changing game” also includes the development of Sevens and its Olympic status, and the foundation of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, after a period in which interest in the game had been steadily waning. Says Wood: “in the lead-up to the tournament, New Zealanders’ enthusiam for rugby football had ebbed away during a very difficult period.” (p.195) Touch rugby became a sport in its own right, but it mainly overlaps with Rugby Union and has the same players. The impact of the “alternative” code Rugby League – less of a “gentleman’s” game in origin and often operating in semi-professionalism – was never a threat to Rugby Union in terms of dominance, but it has sometimes been a “protest” outlet when Rugby Union has been seen as too staid and slow-moving.
When he discusses rugby as a media phenomenon, Wood notes that it was born in an age of mass-circulation newspapers; sustained by radio (he has separate passages on the radio commentators Winston McCarthy and Murray Deaker); then faced the possibility of television, except that the NZRFU for years did not allow live broadcasts of games. Finally came the era of pay TV and dedicated sports channels.
It is Wood’s final chapter, “Commercialism and Globalisation” which seems to me to miss most opprtunities to comment on the game’s current impact on New Zealand society. Wood admits the hard fact that club and provincial rugby have declined in the face of television and the fact that communities are no longer organised around activities like organised sport. The Ranfurly Shield has become a secondary contest compared with professionalised (and televised) rugby franchises. “Provincial rugby appears to have become much like club rugby. It was once representative of the pride of the province. It has appeared to decline in the face of other competitions and other interests. It is rare to hear of a sponsor or a group expressing an interest in provincial rugby.” (p.227)
In the section on First XV rugby in boys’ secondary schools, Wood mentions the in-group of “prestige” schools that run the championships, but only briefly and politely touches on scholarships etc. to attract promising players. (pp.232-236) What I understand is widespread concern about the “poaching” of promising players from one school by another is never discussed. Finally, we come to the professionalisation and the abandonment of anything like amateurism in our supposedly representative national team. (Wood fingers the Aussie media magnates Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch for leading the way in the TV-driven professionalisation of the sport.) We now live in an era where there is a “foreign legion” of New Zealanders who contract to play for overseas teams; rugby agents to secure terms for them; and big money changing hands. Wood’s closing pages gamely appropriate from soccer the term “the beautiful game” and apply it to rugby, though I leave it to other to decide whether he has really made his case.
To end where I began – as a self-confessed non-rugby man, I found much that is interesting in Wood’s account of the game’s history in New Zealand, and I see that the author has made use of much solid research and a very extensive bibliography. But I do not believe Wood has really proven that this shows “how the game shaped the nation”. Parts of it tell us how the nation shaped the game (middle-class aspirations in its foundation; eventual revulsion against South African racism etc.). Too many opportunities are lost to tell us about the game’s status in New Zealand society as a whole. In the whole book there is no reference to how rugby is doing vis-à-vis “soccer” in schools, when it is clear that the numbers playing real football are still growing and the nature of the sporting community is changing. Three times Wood mentions the All Blacks’ ritual pre-match haka. But there is no discussion of concerns about the implicit violence and aggressiveness of this, especially the disgusting “throat-slitting” gesture in the dance’s most recent incarnation. (Please don’t let any nitwit try to tell me that this universally recognisable gesture represents “the breath of life”.) Most egregiously, there is no mention of how New Zealand rugby has been depicted in novels, movies and other dramatisations, from Maurice Gee’s The Big Game in the early 1960s to Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and beyond. Foreskin’s Lament is widely regarded as a seminal play representing a completely different attitude to what was once the “national” game. (The only mention of McGee is the listing of his book on Richie McCaw in the bibliography.)
In the end, then, this conscientious book is more about the game than the nation, and reinforces my view that the former does not represent (or “shape”) the latter.