Traversing cultural contrasts, David Grant

Winters of Revenge: The Bitter Rivalry Between the All Blacks and the Springboks
Spiro Zavos
Viking, $29.95, ISBN 0 670 87574 0

Lochore: An Authorised Biography
As told to Alex Veysey, Gary Caffell, Ron Palenski
Hodder Moa Beckett, HB$44.95,
ISBN 1 86958 303 5

Midfield Liaison: The Frank Bunce, Walter Little Story
Bob Howitt
Rugby, $39.95, ISBN 0 908630 59 X

Books on rugby are a dime a dozen. Reflecting the game’s hegemonic dominance within a male culture that prides both its egalitarian mateship and the reverence that the All Blacks generate, these books sell superbly — Alex Veysey’s biography of Colin Meads sold 57,000 copies. Prominently displayed in the non-fiction sections of the country’s book shops, they perch proudly alongside their main rivals — publications which teach us either how to cook better or make more money. Players are lauded, deified even; memories are rekindled; early lives recounted; games replayed; and the angst of loss revisited. For aficionados, if the All Blacks are still the best in the world, then the universe is in its true equilibrium.

According to Spiro Zavos in his spirited Winters of Revenge, the All Blacks’ claim to be the “best in the world” has faced unrighteous disadvantage from the word go in facing South Africa, the deadliest foe, the only other country in the world where rugby is “lived”, not merely “played”, and has become the benchmark of national distinctiveness. But in South Africa this distinctiveness rests on Afrikaaner values, which are vastly different from our own so that the game’s development has traversed contrasting cultural philosophies within the two countries

Zavos explores this phenomenon. Descendants of the Voortrekkers are proud, arrogant, tribal and bigoted, similar, he attests in a fascinating hypothesis, to the malicious, violent form of football developed at Britain’s Winchester School (best reflected in the vindictive character of old boy Douglas Jardine who invented bodyline bowling to curb Sir Donald Bradman’s run-making genius) in contrast to the “muscular christianity” of Rugby school with its concept of brotherhood across countries and races which became the exemplar of New Zealand rugby culture. (So violent was early South African rugby that the Transvaal Union in the 1920s took out insurance policies to cover the loss of limbs and eyes during representative matches.)

There is little dispute about the New Zealand rugby’s traditional connection with purity and godliness. I, among other historians, have argued that the game in pioneering New Zealand encapsulated all that was perceived to be necessary for a male’s physical, cultural and even spiritual development, players being promoted as tough, physically fit and clean living and the game as “morally uplifting”. Its incredible success (20 years after the first game in Nelson on 14 May 1870 they were no fewer than 800 active clubs in 18 unions) reinforced the worth of the Calvinist ethic of work and play under which it flourished. I argue in my book on the history of gambling in this country, that this success evolved in sharp reaction, at least in part, to the “moral degradation” of gambling on sports that had preceded it.

There was christianity in South Africa too but the fundamentalism of the Dutch Reformed church represented a darker force. Church leaders, indistinguishable from members of the exclusively racist but enormously powerful Broederbond, selectively used Biblical quotations to justify the most damning manifestation of their bigotry — racial discrimination, state-enforced from the 1940s.

Nowhere did this manifest itself more obviously than on the rugby field. Not only was the game exclusively a white sport; it was preponderantly Afrikaans, few English players being chosen for international rugby despite their talents. This racism led to a remarkable sequence of events from the antagonism and violence that characterised the match between Springboks and Maori All Blacks in Napier during South Africa’s first tour in 1921 (which led to no more games between these two teams until 1956 — and only then after the Maoris were warned by their tribal leaders, rugby authorities and politicians “not to create incidents”) to the refusal to allow Maoris to tour South Africa until 1970 and then only as “honorary whites”.

This is the stuff of history and Zavos revisits it with assurance. What is less known is the duplicity in which the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) acquiesced in these demands from the beginning. The reason was simple: the game was all-important. This was the “world championship” and nothing else mattered. Thus, South African racism, biased referees and impossible itineraries were no impediment to local rugby (and political) administrators assenting to South African demands that they fit in with their “conditions”. In 1921 the Hawkes Bay Rugby Football Union, while condemning the infamous Blackett newspaper cable (decrying the local crowds who cheered for the Maori, the “black” race) was at pains to point out publicly that the Maori were superior to the “kaffir” so therefore the Maori should not be be subjected to the same injustices as were black people in South Africa. The rationalisation from that stance which stood as a benchmark until a maturing society began to protest about it — but not for 40 years — was that not sending Maori players to South Africa was not so much an endorsement of apartheid but a measure of how “highly the Maori race is valued by his fellow pakeha citizens”.

Thereafter, the NZRFU hierarchy, through a mixture of venality and paternalism (the 1960 All Black manager Tom Pearce told a farewell audience that the decision not to take Maori players “sprang only from a love of these Maoris, these gentle people” — and this despite the Sharpeville massacres and a 162,000-signature protest in opposition) was in long-term acquiescence to Afrikaaner obstinacy, best reflected in the “good doctor” Danie Craven uncovered by Zavos as the vengeful bigot he always was.

This connivance ensured that such skilled players like George Nepia, Jimmy Mill, Johnny Smith, Vince Bevin and Ben Couch were never allowed to tour South Africa. Worse, there was implicit assent to the blatant cheating of home referees in test matches which was the norm in that country for 40 years. (When lock Peter Whiting learned on his return from the 1976 tour that the NZRFU turned down down an offer of neutral referees he angrily retired on the spot). Couple this with a “jobs-for-the boys” mentality, rather than on ability, when it came to choosing coaches and managers, alongside some bizarre selection decisions, the real wonder is that the All Blacks won any tests at all in South Africa.

It is interesting to surmise, to take one example, that had New Zealand in 1949 appointed a half-decent manager instead of the aged NZRFU lackey, Jack Parker, whose public malignment of his own players was only matched by his obsequiousness in trying to please the South Africans, the right coach (Otago’s Vic Cavanagh, rather than the ineffectual Alex MacDonald who, in fact, was stripped of his coaching duties soon after the team arrived), a full range of Maori talent (Bevin, the Smith brothers and Couch at least) as well as other glaring omissions such as Jack McLean, a John Kirwan-type winger and “Killer” Arnold (the greatest flanker of his time, according to Winston McCarthy), fewer huge but slow forwards — and neutral referees, that the All Blacks may have won rather than lost the four tests against an ordinary Springbok side obssessed with 10-man rugby and which relied predominantly on the boot of “Okey” Geffin.

The book is also an affirmation of the “glory” of victory and the country’s unparalleled delight in it in the absence of other national pleasures. Expressions of unbridled fervour reached their apotheosis after the All Black victory in the 1956 series, which went some way towards expunging the travails of 1937 when the All Blacks lost a home series, and 1949. No matter that both teams played primitive rugby which occasionally erupted into gruesome thuggery. No matter that the matches for the most part were kick-obsessed and forward-dominated save for brief moments of esctacy such as Ron Jarden’s try which sealed the third test in Christchurch. An advertisement in the Christchurch Star summed up the emotion of the time: “Refined gentleman wishes to meet cultured widow, view matrimony. Must have independent means and tickets to the third test. Please send photograph of the tickets”.

Zavos recounts the anguish of 1981 and traverses the bitter battle between the World Rugby Corporation (with Packer as the bankroller) and the unions (with Murdoch) as rugby clawed its uneasy passage into professionalism. That has been the saviour of these contests however. Professionalism has meant not only payment to players but also a new, distinct and accountable administration serving the game and its players as opposed to the bureaucrats who purported to run it. Last year the All Blacks, with their best-ever coach, the best-possible squad, an astute management team supported by a more enlightened NZRFU — and neutral referees, at last broke the shackles by winning its first series on South African soil, at the same time nullifying the bitter disappointments of the 1995 World Cup and all that had preceded it.

In the author’s words, it was revenge, sweet revenge. The pendulum had returned to its rightful balance. Fred Allen, captain in 1949, is a sober man devoid of visible sentiment in normal circumstances. These were not normal circumstances and tears rolled down his cheeks at the final whistle. There was graciousness on the other side too. Johan Claassen, the rock of the 1956 Springbok scrum and a later South African coach and selector said simply: “These All Blacks are Gods”.

I was absorbed by this book, written with joie de vivre, pathos and wisdom. Not least impressive was the rigour of Zavos’ research. He has interwoven a potpourri of fact and opinion from a host of sources as diverse as Karl Marx and Dan Davin into a coherent thesis which makes the didacticism of his opinion all the more credible. His recounting of the machiavellian ways of South African rugby gave credence to my own memory as not a thing of prejudice. I still recall in anger among many examples the blatant misdirections of moustachioed referee Piet Robbertsee on the veldt in 1970 as the South Africans went on to win that series.

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I was delighted that Zavos dedicates his book to Ken Gray whose true day in the sun has not yet arrived. It was Gray rather than Meads, Lochore or Whineray who was the cornerstone of the 1960s pack. In 1965, it was his total dominance of his opposite Sakkie van Zyl that paved the way for a superior All Black scrum in that series and, as a ball-taker at No 2 in the lineout he had no peer. Much more important, Gray became not only the first All Black to understand that New Zealand contact with South African rugby vindicated the racist political system in Afrikaaner eyes but also the first to put principle before pleasure by retiring at the peak of his powers just before the 1970 tour. The quiet dignity with which he accomplished this did not stem the opprobrium manifested among rugby devotees, not the least in his own Petone Club where his status shifted from hero to persona non grata. It was indeed a tragedy that Gray did not live to witness both the victory in 1996 and the demise of apartheid.

Brian Lochore respected the mettle of Gray’s integrity and the ominous gap his defection caused the All Blacks in 1970, stating that his strength and lineout option could have swung the series. This tribute comes in Lochore: An Authorised Biography as told to three sports writers covering different aspects of his rugby career as player, coach and manager at provincial and international level. This book, the reviewer felt, could serve as a useful counterpoint to the Zavos’ publication, in part because of the roles he commanded against South Africa as a player in 1965, captain in 1970 and as manager to the 1995 World Cup.

But there is more that intrigues about Lochore. To a casual observer he has always appeared to be the quintessence of integrity, a man whose skill, determination, honesty, humility and quiet achievement stand as a paradigm for the protestant ethos. This book reinforces all those essential elements of goodness as it traces his remarkable career from provincial player in lowly Wairarapa-Bush to All Black captain. His post-playing career was equally impressive. Within a year of being the only coach to date to take Wairarapa to the first division he was an All Black selector, coach of the colts in 1984, appointed convener of selectors and coach of the “Baby Blacks” of 1986 which defeated the French before the glory of the first World Cup win in the following year and the regaining of the Bledisloe Cup thereafter. His work done, Lochore “retired” then, back to his family and beloved farm near Eketahuna.

But a man of his prestige could not long be ignored. He was invited to coach a World XV in a three-test series against the All Blacks to celebrate the NZRFU’s centennial in 1992 and then was unanimously chosen as the manager of the 1995 World Cup squad to South Africa. The book ends with the sadness of losing the final, juxtaposed with the food poisoning disgrace (Lochore, unlike Zavos, refuses to state whether it was deliberate) and the fight between the competing factions at the onset of professionalism.

Lochore’s mana has taken him beyond rugby into some remarkable arenas. He was invited on to a netball sub-committee where he persuaded the doubters to give Leigh Gibbs another go as national coach after the disappointments of the 1995 World Championships. In his home province he “ran” Kuranui College in Greytown as commissioner after the Minister of Education had sacked their fractious board of trustees. His innate integrity and sense of fair play saw him succeed at this job as well.

The book is workmanlike but ultimately disappointing. Like many in this genre of “assisted biographies” where the text moves back and forwards between the writer and the subject, the writing is disjointed. There is little insight into or assessment of Lochore’s career. It needed more detachment, more reflection, more opinion. Few documents or publications were consulted; few of his friends and colleagues were interviewed. Would the real Brian Lochore please stand up? In hindsight, nonetheless, I suspect that any “unauthorised” biography of the man would be little different in sentiment from this “authorised” version.

Bob Howitt’s Midfield Liaison, the story of Frank Bunce and Walter Little, is more the standard rugby biogaphy that crowd the book stands. Neither man has finished his rugby career, which indicates the marketability of this production is more important that the completion of unfinished business. But I respect Howitt as a long-term rugby journalist and founder of the worthy Rugby News, an icon in its own right. Bunce and Little’s stories, separate then interwoven, rollick along and their contrasting fortunes (Bunce was not an All Black till he was 30; Little at 19) make for entertaining, albeit quick reading. But hardly challenging. As I write this, Bunce, written off by many, has become the toast of New Zealand as both innovator and finisher of two marvellous tries in the first of the 1997 tri-series match against South Africa — and at the age of 35! How sad that this will now not be joyously recorded and reflected upon at a later and proper time.

David Grant is a Wellington historian whose latest publication Bulls, Bears and Elephants: A History of the New Zealand Stock Exchange is reviewed on p20 in this issue. He is  researching a history of the TAB.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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