Please forgive me. In common with such canny marketing organisations as the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, shoe giant Reebok, beer mogul Steinlager, a cheese company, the ASB Bank and others, I have just invoked the name of Jonah Lomu to boost exposure for a product.
In this case, the product is an essay about rugby. It’s the story of how a simple physical ritual has been transformed into a sophisticated means of getting messages into the minds of millions.
I want briefly to traverse rugby’s journey, recapitulate my own and others’ speculations on why the game has been so popular in New Zealand, recount some personal experiences from growing up with the game, examine the futile efforts of the rugby union to keep a commercial lid on things and look at the full forces of capital which have now been brought to bear on the back of the likes of Jonah Lomu, the likeable, bullocking 20‑year‑old from south Auckland.
The scale of changes Lomu is caught up in as rugby turns professional has parallels with four major social earthquakes of the last decade; the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, war in Ireland and the apartheid regime in South Africa ‑ all events which, in weaker moments, you’d given up thinking might happen in your lifetime.
But it is never a case of “just like that”. The conditions for revolution have been ripening for years. In spite of a history of desperate protestations that rugby is just a game, a sacred arena for heroic acts, it is as pumped through with politics and greed as the next regime. Canadian sociologist Richard Gruneau, whose writings about the development of sport provide a powerful explanation of rugby’s journey, refers to the formative stages of a game as a “play ritual”. He notes the ritual’s ability to both give rise to and reflect wider social mores.
Men have played rugby in New Zealand since 1870 when they gathered at clearings in the bush to wrestle over inflated pig bladders. This exercise was closely connected to their work. It was a way of confirming or overthrowing reputations forged in the everyday struggle to smash, rip, burn and conquer a landscape which was conveniently large and able to be taken, but did not yet comply with European notions of civilisation and control. We were scared of the bush, of the darkness, of its creeping fecundity, of the Maori it gave shelter to, so it had to come down. These bush burners, these farmers, these loggers, these railway builders, they got together like a group of orangutan in the bush. Clumps of men with few females to play with. They made their own fun. They played rugby.
Soon there was self‑imposed pressure to test this toughness outside the confines of the village and the province. As Jock Phillips has extensively documented, this stirring of nationalism found its expression in the exploits of New Zealand men at the Boer war, the 1905 All Black tour of Great Britain and World War I. At some considerable expense we found we really could cut it. We were as brave, as tough, as committed and worthy of respect of older and bigger countries.
And the nationalistic element of rugby has remained important to us. It has boosted our confidence and helped define our place in the world. It has helped us negotiate our relationship with the mother country. Through rugby we’ve measured our manliness against the South Africans and explored richer veins of internationality through tours to the new worlds of Argentina and Rumania. We’ve maintained our pride and distance from Australia, while in more recent times the All Black’s world-beating performances have also been exploited as a metaphor for the virility of our economy. There is nothing wrong with this national definition stuff. It’s boring if you don’t know who you are and, besides, it’s wildly exciting when Zinzan Brooke drops a goal from 40 metres and leaves the arrogant English gasping.
Frost. Mandatory stuff of childhood rugby. Bare feet, green knees, little high voices, a ragged bunch of kids tearing across the turf, dwarfed beneath the goal posts in front of the war memorial which recorded our town’s fallen in the world wars, with the inevitable parents hollering their frustrations like cattle waiting to be killed down at the works.
I was there. Afterwards, a bath at home and the probing questions of my older brother anxious to establish my cultural safety. Did I score for my team? Wanting desperately to earn his respect, but ashamed of my achievements on the field I remember saying, “I didn’t get any goals, but I got four tries.” Because of a faulty upbringing by a Dutch father, I still sincerely believed at age 6 that a try was a player’s attempt to score. Soon afterwards, though, I burnt the skin off my knees recreating the greatest tries of head-banded All Black Alister Scown on the new carpet in our front room.
These anecdotes are the very fabric of small town life. Patterns are being set that people will carry to their grave. For one childhood friend ‑ it will always be “Boy Grows Peanuts in Eltham” ‑ after the Stratford Press shot a photo story of his youthful gardening achievement. I enjoyed my own share of fame around this time, too ‑ snapped in my glory playing for the Eltham primary 1st XV. I’m trying to charge the ball down, my hair is too long, eyes are tightly closed and buck teeth are grimacing.
Probably a lot of the potency of the rugby memory has little to do with the significance of the match ‑ but has merely to do with the psychological disorientation and trauma of rising in the middle of the night to gather around the television. I vividly recall doing this at my peanut-growing friend’s place. It was down by the freezing works. We woke at 1 am with the familiar smell of the offal from the previous day’s kill of harmless dairy cows being cooked up for fertiliser and gathered before the veneer cabinet of the Murphy 26″. And, really, the rest is a blur, pyjamas, a glass of cordial and the anguish as the ball seemed to roll out of the grasp of Andy Leslie as he dived across the veldt. Glory missed by 2 inches.
My fascination with rugby since is borne partially by my feelings of physical inadequacy forged in the bashings of the school playground and partially in my shimmering resentment that it was always the rugby player who got the girl. In 1986, provoked by the Cavaliers tour of South Africa I studied rugby culture for a masters degree at Massey. I used oral history to penetrate the psyche of the fan and recorded the history of 10 rugby lifers around the Eltham club ‑ supplementing this with newspaper accounts, and studies of club photos and business records. Studying one’s home town is fraught with political problems such as your mother sharing the TAB with the subjects of your study. My thesis was, in retrospect, rather tentative in its findings.
A decade after our boys returned from World War II there was a growing amount of money about and a lack of social and entertainment options to spend it. Up to 5000 Fred McMurray look‑alikes with roll‑yer‑own fags on their lips could turn up in their Vauxhall Veloxes to watch a club final between Eltham and Clifton. The grounds had long been enclosed and it now cost a shilling to get in to watch a couple of teams of “well drilled boys”. The match programme would be full of awful puns somehow connecting the local butcher and builder with rugby, but it was still worth buying for a sixpence because by now the players had numbers on their jerseys to help you tell them apart. In Gruneau’s terms the play ritual had matured to become an “institution”.
Something else was happening too. Money. It was starting to flow into the game. At first in small amounts as shown by the Eltham Club’s meagre operating surplus of less than £5 for many years. Yet elephantine committees would earnestly meet to discuss the disbursement of these surpluses on such useful capital items as a new awl for lacing up footballs. The decision, mover and seconder duly noted, would be recorded in graceful fountain ink in the same leather‑bound minute book I used for my research years later. But in the 1950s the funds flooded in. Like £500 from a single club final against Clifton. The money was spent on elaborate player insurance schemes, new club houses and developing new grounds for the growing number of schoolboy teams.
It is in these later grey years after the war that the more sinister elements of rugby blossomed. The game began to spread its suffocating social blanket ‑ wiping out traces of dissent, of artistry, of sensitivity, of soccer, of maoriness, of women’ s concerns as we turned out in force to watch hard man Kevin Skinner sort out the Boks in the third test of ’56 (see Warwick Roger’s excellent account of the period).
Rugby books are crammed with cute allusions to epic drunken journeys and exploits in the bar, but no one has really had the guts to document the ugly ignorant side of rugby as it has often been. Greg McGee stuck his neck out with Foreskin’s Lament. Who’s done the documentary? Who’s stood outside the clubrooms on a clear but cold winter night and listened to the dissolute sound of Golden Harvest’s “I Need your Love” drifting across the factory houses as a 20-stone solo mother called Freight Train gets gang‑banged in the back of a Falcon, a queue of men stretching down the footpath. Who’s travelled in the minibus for a test match in Auckland? Who got the number when the minibus stopped and a player stuck his arse out the back door at a pedestrian crossing and did a big shit on the road in front of a mother and child? Who? Not me … Because, like most people I’m too scared.
The real story of rugby has never been told ‑ the soggy crackers, the fights, the car crashes, the violence at home. The sorry story of the alleged sodomies in Inglewood last year might just have been the tip of the iceberg. Or then again it might not? Suddenly 1 see the ambiguous force in the title of Steven Eldred Grigg’s indulgent book ‑ My History, I think. In the bright, cleansing light of Sunday morning, often the only evidence is a pile of empties.
While this dark side was festering in New Zealand through the 1970s, elsewhere in the country, away from the blanket of blokism, in the university, in the safety of the city, other ways of thinking began to blossom: Maori ways, global perspectives, women’s ways and gay ways. And when in 1981 the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (backed by the National Government and the police) insisted on playing the Springboks, two cultural glaciers collided.
The steel bars and firebombs and sticks and stones that flew outside the ground at the final test in Auckland were the detritus of this collision. The rugby union won the battle. It got its games. But it lost the war. From being a dominant culture, rugby was barged roughly out of the way and has been a mere subculture ever since. The deregulation of the economy and media, the women’s movement, the Maori revival and an explosion of youth subcultures has since secured the end of rugby’s hegemony.
While rugby was licking its wounds and some of the leading players prostituted themselves on the Cavaliers tour of 1986, we had even been on the world stage with our intellectual muscleman David Lange at the Oxford debate rather than in the cauldron at Twickenham or Cardiff Arms!
In modern times, rugby’s economic strength stems from its entertainment value for the mass media. It delivers audiences to advertisers. And while the test players have always been huge heroes, it was the immediacy and detail of exposure provided by television to huge audiences which first set a time bomb ticking under a game that had now matured (in Gruneau’s terms) from an “institution” to a “commercial” game. Rigorously amateur ‑ yes ‑ but oh so commercial. Large sums of money began to fly around from the 1970s onwards as the breweries moved ever closer to rugby. They recognised on the orange patterned carpets of the rugby clubrooms an unquenchable thirst amongst the bouffant‑haired, side‑boarded, hard‑men of the nation.
The rugby union controlled the game through this period with a mean spirit of domination, intervention and masculine control which had remarkable parallels to the Muldoon political regime. The union’s complicated committee structure and the alleged fondness of its black-jerseyed councillors for a drink and a good time was the subject of a growing lamentation by leading players in their biographies (no royalties permitted). Chris Laidlaw, it was, who was first to allude to the black market nature of the All Black lifestyle ‑ with players stumbling through customs loaded down with duty free electronic equipment to sell to their friends.
Ebony and Ivory pranksters Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser got stuck in on the subject of amateurism as did stirrer Andy Haden (Boots ‘n’ All), while dignified, highly moral rugby leader Graham Mourie was booted out of the game altogether for accepting royalties from his biography to help pay off his dairy farm.
Even where elements in the NZRFU were sympathetic to these appeals, action was limited because of global control of the game by the English-dominated International Rugby Union. In 1987 we tentatively held the first World Cup, though we were too shy to celebrate. We didn’t know the significance of what we had just won, because it was the first one. And yet we should have. Our golden boy David Kirk added to the story of our nation. His boy‑next‑door looks soiled by a blackened eye as he held the golden cup glinting in the late afternoon sunlight above the gloom of Eden Park was magnificent imagery and a further landmark in the building of a global television audience for rugby.
Kirk left for England shortly after, became a leading spokesperson for improved financial returns for players, and has since been a major proponent for implementing the Boston report on strategic choices for New Zealand rugby. Its recommendations, now overtaken by history, still deliver some strong indications as to what will happen now the professional bubble has been burst by the combine pressure of rugby league and the media magnates Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer bargaining for television rights.
The professional reorganisation of rugby has close parallels with economic restructuring in other sectors such as telecommunications, manufacturing, health and government services. We’re in for changes. Each team will cost about $3 million a year to keep in business at a national provincial level and, according to the Boston report, the ideal population base for each team is 300,000 to 500,000. So there will be fewer teams.
The new IPC competition has a pool system for players which does away with the residency requirements of the past. If Auckland’s got too many good players, from now on someone else can use them. Professional sport’s first aim is to manufacture a competition which will generate exciting games and close finishes because that’s what the crowds and viewers want.
From overseas experience we can also expect more science to come into the game. Things are too expensive to leave to chance any more. So we will see more doctors, marketers and lawyers as players strive for new levels of physical achievement, promote themselves, but sue if they’re taken out or mistreated. Various parts of the athletes, bodies will become “objectified” and will be the subject of intense public scrutiny. From Andrew Mehrten’s knee ligaments to Jonah’s back spasm, expect an unprecedented soap opera of the stars as the media fuel serial stories to lock audiences in. I would even go so far as to say that we are probably not that far away from enduring our first pictures from “Knee Cam” or some such other medical trickery as surgery is performed on our heroes.
Watch, also, for the artificial cultivation of personality ‑ from Josh Kronfeld with his nuclear‑free headgear to Bull Allen the dome-headed vegetarian prop from Stratford. I’m not saying their personas are anything but genuine (not to their face anyway), but do expect even more colour ‑ and easier ways to identify the stars with names on jerseys and on‑field antics. The wooden face of Colin Meads coming up from scoring the try will increasingly be replaced by the Wilson Whoop. The players are brand-wagons now. They will be ruthless in their ability to get these brands on television and into the minds of viewers.
Since the NZRFU appointed a marketing manager only a couple of years ago revenues from marketing have increased 260%. Expect more night games as rugby further goes after its market, and rule changes to make the game racier, and even ad breaks in the play. Look out for a television-determined kick off at 8.08, not on the hour. Someone’s been left out in all of this. It’s the traditional fan.
The strategic plans say the money is in attracting “theatre goers,” the 75% of the population who enjoy a good spectacle, not the 15% of the population who are the hard core, mainly young male supporters. Sorry boys, you’ve just become a niche market.
Piet de Jong wrote Saturday’s Warriors about Eltham’s rugby culture, available from the Massey University sociology department.