“Who’s this Pinetree?” Chris Laidlaw

The Judas Game: The Betrayal of New Zealand rugby
Joseph Romanos
Darius Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0958240906

Meads
Brian Turner
Hodder Moa Beckett $49.95,
ISBN 1869589173

A little anecdote buried in Joseph Romanos’ latest book The Judas Game: The Betrayal of New Zealand Rugby summed up the way that this country’s national sport has been catapulted into the professional age. It concerns a youthful Jonah Lomu, plucked from  the meaner streets of South Auckland, who, as a 16-year-old phenomenon on the treadmill upwards toward stardom, was playing in a tournament in the King Country. This was Pinetree country, everybody kept saying. Lomu and his colleagues were told that they were going to be playing against Pinetree’s son.  “Pinetree?” said Lomu. “Who’s this Pinetree?” His audience is said to have been stunned by such horrifying ignorance. How could any self-respecting up-and-comer not have heard of Colin Meads? Something’s going on here, someone said. And something certainly was.

The disjunction between the amateur and the professional eras is the subject not just of Romanos’ book; it is also a central theme of Brian Turner’s biography of Colin Meads, entitled, simply, Meads. Both authors in their own way are lamenting the loss of a time of innocence: a time when men came down from the hills and played, if not quite for love then for a means of asserting their place as males in a society that wasn’t much interested in males if they didn’t play, coach, watch or administrate rugby.

Romanos takes the view that the transformation from amateur to professional has been very much for the worse. His teeth are set on edge by it all. The game, he says, with more than a note of bitterness, has lost its way. It has been betrayed by the carpetbaggers. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s all trickle-up, just like the rest of society. But didn’t we already know all this? Wasn’t it always obvious that once the game went professional it would never be the same? Millions of words have been poured out over this dilemma in the seven or so years since the game was effectively purchased by a few multinational sponsors and much of the reflection on this jump-shift in the character of the game has been negative.

Perhaps sensing this mood, Romanos is unfailingly negative in The Judas Game. There is a relentlessly maudlin atmosphere to it. Old players, almost to a man, express sadness, confusion or anger at the way the game has been taken away from them, swept up by new-age businessmen in snappy dark suits and white shirts and carried off into the haze of high commerce.

Romanos tells us nothing particularly new about any of this but he lays it all out very comprehensively. We are told of the handsome contracts dished out to the top professionals although not many numbers are revealed. People would like to know how much Lomu actually gets paid, but Romanos can’t actually tell us. It’s confidential. We are taken through the awful débâcle over the loss of rights to host the World Cup, and Romanos concludes that it is largely because the suits didn’t understand the game well enough. They didn’t read their Australian or IRB counterparts because they didn’t have enough personal experience of the game.

He describes the “browning” of rugby in this country, hinting darkly here and there that this isn’t positive because it will drive smaller and more delicate white boys away from the game. But is this a betrayal? Of course, it isn’t. And this is where the book reveals its most notable flaw. It is more of a potted history of the last decade than a treatise on betrayal, and one longed for a sign or two that at least some things are being done right. Alas, it’s all bad news. Except for the Sevens team and the Women – the Black Ferns. Both of these phenomenal success stories are dismissed as an afterthought on the last page as “exciting”. It would do the game a lot more justice to have analysed why these teams have been so astoundingly successful because it is here that the future is being mapped. Romanos moves past the positive, however. His concluding lines are deeply pessimistic:

Let’s face it: what good is it really if women’s and sevens rugby thrives and the rest of the game is withering? It’s like seeing a person in hospital dying of cancer, but with beautifully painted fingernails.

 

It all rather reminded me of the old man who used to parade around Hyde Park Corner with a sandwich-board which read on one side “Beware, the end is nigh” and on
the other “Prepare to meet thy doom”.

2

How refreshing therefore to pick up Turner’s delicious rendering of Colin Meads, the real chap. Turner is not someone given to hyperbole. He is not one of those biographers who sits at the feet in awe of his subject. He found a very workable wavelength with Meads, something that nobody else has been able to do in recent times, and no mean challenge in itself because Meads is an essentially shy, diffident individual, who is in a state of perpetual discomfort about his celebrity and who gets very nervous about people who overstate the legend. There is no caricature here. Pinetree is a real person at last; an ordinary chap who, by virtue of his extraordinary powers of brute strength, athleticism, rugby cunning and a burning sense of patriotism, has earned a deserved place as the player of the last century and the ultimate benchmark against which all things rugby are judged.

It is this aspect of his character that, of course, makes the legend grow, and Turner plays around with this notion as he goes along. Colin Meads is sketched against the backdrop of his daily life – the pressures of trying, often unsuccessfully, to run a farm and a family while supporting a thousand different causes simply out of a sense of personal obligation. Putting something back in return for the inestimable dividend paid to him by rugby. And putting plenty back into the society that has put him on a permanent pedestal, ignoring the flaws and the misjudgements along the way.

Turner is himself highly sceptical about the effects that professional rugby is having on the game and the society in which it now so uncomfortably sits. But the book conveys a sense of continuity between the old and the new. Meads is at his best when he offers his dry gags about boys who eat pasta not being real rugby players. He doesn’t really believe any of this and sometimes is taken too literally by those who listen to him or read about what he says. This is where the minds of Turner and Meads intersect so well. Both are masters of the cryptic, of self-deprecation and understand the essential ridiculousness of fame.

Colin Meads wasn’t the world’s most successful administrator. As a manager, he made many mistakes. As a national councillor he was less than brilliant, and Turner makes no effort to hide the warts. The ill-judged Cavaliers tour of South Africa in 1985, one of the more infamous chapters in the game’s history, was something that Meads later had cause to regret; but Turner lets Meads take us through the “will I or won’t I” process of deciding  whether or not to accept the role of manager of that team in his own words, and the effect is compellingly authentic.

Meads is, above all else, an explanation of the continuity that exists between the old and the new. Colin, the old-fashioned player, is somehow still an essential cog in the new system. The New Zealand Rugby Union realises that he, Whineray, Lochore and other old, wise heads are indispensable in the modern era, and Turner’s admirable summary of the modern Meads helps us to understand why.

 

Chris Laidlaw is a former All Black, columnist and broadcaster.

 

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