All credit to the team, Garth Baker

Century in Black: 100 Years of All Black Test Rugby
Ron Palenski
Hodder Moa Beckett, $69.99,
ISBN 1869589378

Heritage: Golden Years of All Black Rugby
Paul Verdon
Hill-Verdon Publishing, $39.95,
ISBN 0958238707

All Black Magic; 100 years of New Zealand test rugby
Bob Howitt and Diane Haworth
HarperSports, $40,
ISBN 1869504836

Christian Cullen: Life on the Run
John Matheson
Hodder Moa Beckett, $49.99,
ISBN 1869589394

A Whole New Ball Game
Paul Thomas
Hodder Moa Beckett, $34.99,
ISBN 1869589661

The Clubs
Lindsay Knight
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0143018582

Different shapes and sizes, standing side by black side, these books look like the All Blacks lined up for the national anthem. Their intense expressions mask individual motivations, styles, strengths and weaknesses. First the forwards: Century In Black – a large slab of black contrasting with a silver fern (complete with registered trademark logo), so big it must be a lock. Broader than it is high, Heritage is obviously a prop. Then All Black Magic, a solidly compact hooker. Moving onto the backs: with Christian Cullen at fullback, this must be pre-2003. Next up, A Whole New Ball Game has flash green titles, which would draw suspicion in the rural provinces, so it had better be a damn good player. Much more restrained, the utility reserve, The Clubs, anchors the line up.

Century in Black, Heritage, and All Black Magic were all published to celebrate 100 years of All Black test matches. And this milestone is worth marking. Since first playing Australia in 1903 to the end of 2002, the All Blacks have won 71.9 per cent of their 367 international games. This makes them one of the most triumphant sports teams ever. No other national rugby team has got a look in and great teams in other codes – Manchester United, the Brazilian soccer team or the Chicago Bulls, for example – haven’t been as consistent. It is this outstanding success that gives the All Blacks their aura.

Reliable set pieces – large photos, short background stories, interesting sidebars, player profiles and lots of statistics – document these exploits. Like a sound bite from any rugby player after a match, what you get is exactly what you expect. The authors cite stats, judiciously select examples and talk in generalities. Even with the sweat still hot on their brow, they’re comfortably nostalgic. They summarise outstanding individual performances, using the player’s nickname to indicate respect. The outstanding player, in turn, shuffles and acknowledges the team effort.

When forced to discuss controversies they frown and choose their words carefully to avoid offence. They repeatedly proclaim their “love of the game” but the ugly extremes of this fanaticism – the brutality (on and off the field), the blinding conservatism, the bullying chauvinism, the selective application of morals and the presumption that everyone should fervently believe – are well moderated. The authors, all experienced apostles of the rugby faith, strip the stories down to their archetypal elements, making them more emotionally appealing and inclusive.

In the foreword to Century in Black, rugby union chairman Jock Hobbs reiterates the litany: “All Blacks … world leaders … all of New Zealand can take great pride and joy in that … passion … pride … commitment and determination … This book celebrates what test rugby means to each and every one of us.” All Black Magic wears its heart on its title, noting that as the New Zealanders beat Australia in that first test “the magic was there from the start”.  Heritage is subtitled the Golden Years of All Black Rugby and covers the “magical time of All Black rugby” when “our young men went to foreign shores, were up against the world and were almost always victorious”.

For the rugby fan, this is appealing at a deep spiritual level. Ball sports originated in Egyptian religious ceremonies and in its simplest form, sport reflects the human tussle with fate. Like an effective religion, sports becomes a parallel existence to daily life, enriching us with myths, traditions, rituals, symbols, sacred ground, heroism, opportunities for agony and ecstasy, a specialised vocabulary, different hierarchies of understanding and a constantly reinforced identity. Rugby is the particular sport that has offered these necessities of life to New Zealanders over the last century.

I too am a believer with a season ticket to prove it. And it was this part of me that enjoyed rugby lore. Most stories have been told many times before and the familiarity was comforting. I also appear in two of the books, admittedly only as a fuzzy splodge – one of the background multitude at the 1971 Lions test at Athletic Park. But I was there – as the true acolyte must say – I was there, attending my first test match, bathed in glorious winter sunlight and baptised in the fire of mass hope (and ultimately, disappointment).

The perplexing question of why exactly the All Blacks have been so successful doesn’t need to be asked or answered here. In the end it simply seems to be that for most of last century the character requirements of rugger aligned with our rugged male stereotype so that we took the game much more seriously than the few other rugby-playing countries (with the possible exception of white South Africa). And remember how incredibly boring and conformist New Zealand public life was for most of the 20th century – ripe conditions for fanaticism. Rugby was one of our meagre communal pleasures and one of the rare venues for demonstrative male behaviour, albeit of a limited range.

Add in colonial teenage rebellion and it becomes an obvious way to express a tentative national identity. With this concentrated fervour it was no wonder – or magic – that we constantly beat everyone, still go on about it and expect so much from the All Blacks.

These books do deliver heroes. Just wearing the silver fern is a good start but what we need are individuals who soar higher and regularly defy fate while still modelling earthy bloke values. Sacrificing a finger to play; leaving a cryptic note for the missus when hastily called into the team; bursting through tackle after tackle to score; repeatedly making the deciding difference – you know the requirements. And who could be a better model to start the new century than Christian Cullen. Read his biography if you need to know how brilliant he is (and let me declare I agree with every word of praise written).

He always made a difference, often in spectacular form, and his humble manner, typically blank expression and awkward shyness represent the “walking-the-walk and not even bothering with talking-the-talk” stoic modesty of it all. He got mucked around by the All Blacks coach (who didn’t demonstrate the required loyalty or direct “man-to-man” communication, let alone speak comprehensibly), which adds to Cullen’s legend. His biography was published late in the 2003 season when it became clear he wasn’t going to be selected for the All Blacks again and was off to play out his career in Ireland.

While this controversy adds a contemporary frisson, there really isn’t that much to say about a young man whose modest life has focused almost exclusively on being very good at rugby. A large format, many photos, big type and well-spaced lines bulk it up but this doesn’t matter. There are ample servings of the core values Cullen personified. The archetypal story could be written on the back of a ticket anyway.

Previous biographies of your run-of-the-mill All Black great have sold around 20,000 copies. While this volume would make a New Zealand novelist weep, Cullen’s tale has sold well over 30,000 copies. If it had been written as fiction, it would have seemed a hackneyed cliché but its simplicity makes the story universal. This book will have been a welcome Christmas gift for many rugby fans across the country (with the possible exception of some in Canterbury who probably can’t read with their one eye anyway).

His story is perfect for keeping the Kiwi egalitarian dream alive – I finished the book thinking that if he is the small town, working-class boy next door – Everyman – then I too could have been an All Black. There’s the minor matter of needing a different physique, more co-ordination, greater anaerobic fitness, a much higher power to weight ratio, a significantly harder work ethic, a hell of a lot more competitive spirit and heaps more luck but I am that close to greatness – the cry of Everyfan.

But rugby does occasionally make me great. Again, I can say I was there – Cully’s last game in New Zealand. True to form, he keeps Wellington in the game with two audacious tries. Then minutes before the end he is subbed off, injured, and the opposition players magnanimously applaud. The entire stadium, Auckland supporters included, immediately stand, enthusiastically roaring, and delaying the game with our spontaneous mass communion. Uplifted in a rare, heartfelt show of euphoric generosity, we were all blessed.

Unfortunately such pure moments are rare, and, some claim, becoming extinct. The game’s downward spiral since moving to professionalism seven years ago is a recurring subtext in rugby commentaries. The jacket notes of Heritage state that “sporting life seems to have been more simple, more pleasant before the unsentimental professionalism”. The blurb on A Whole New Ball Game summarises it as “a perception that the game has lost its way and is in serious decline”. This anxiety becomes a full panic attack in The Judas Game: The Betrayal of New Zealand Rugby (reviewed in New Zealand Books June 2003). To the old-world fanatic, the sponsor’s logo is the mark of the devil on the hallowed black vestment and the game’s going to hell.

Paul Thomas confronts all this in A Whole New Ball Game and finds that, despite the obvious changes, aspects of the game have actually improved. With a honed, perceptive style, Thomas tackles the big issues. Quickly gaining possession, he side-steps the usual rhetoric and fends off counter arguments to score some good points. His flashy green hair, I mean titles, is forgiven, except by die-hard fans who think such an in-depth analysis is unpatriotic.

Here are the challenges he sees facing New Zealand rugby: the small size of our playing base and economy; the greater experience and income that other, more populous countries have gained from professionalism; and the competition rugby now faces from other forms of entertainment. All this is tilting the playing field and the goalposts are sliding further away. The All Blacks’ point of difference, as they now say, used to be their determination to win, or not to lose. The opposition’s greater resources (and their passion) match, and at times surpass ours. With winning now coming down to smaller and smaller differences, the All Blacks will have to take their chances with fate. Sad to say, but this is going to be a game of two centuries.

This is the wider context for The Clubs, which raises a 12oz glass of draught beer to toast traditional rugby clubs and their stalwarts – the “grassroots” of the old-style game. The book has the poignancy of an ANZAC day piss-up, with the institution and characters obviously fading away. Their demise, more All Black losses and worst of all, Christian Cullen now playing in Ireland, all reflect the pressures of the global economy on New Zealand. Consumerism is the new nationalism and rugby now one of many products, all claiming to offer spiritual rewards.

Sure market forces have improved my enjoyment of the game. I can rest easy knowing the rugby union wouldn’t dare jeopardise market share with another 1981 tour. The need to compete for the urban middle-class entertainment dollar has reduced foul play, and rule changes have made games more attractive spectacles of skill. The stadia toilets are much cleaner too, even the men’s.

But with unfettered capitalism comes class divisions. Even watching a game live on tv is another opportunity to participate which is denied to many. The riches of professional rugby will motivate a steady supply of lower-class players who’re prepared to do the dirty and dangerous work that middle-class fans won’t let their children do. The old egalitarian dream becomes just another motif in marketing campaigns that play on baby boomers’ nostalgia for such anachronisms as shamateurism, free-to-air tv coverage and the welfare state. All this rankles and perplexes.

The passive cynicism of the beer adverts’ “Yeah, right” seems the only response to rugby at this time. But, as a true acolyte, I know the game is even bigger than Christian Cullen and I will be there again. I can already feel a faint tingling in a deep, primaeval part of my soul. The familiar excitement will return, the dreams will become believable, life will be richer and Fate seemingly less dominant. Kick it off.

 

Garth Baker, a former schoolboy player, has a season ticket but owns no All Black merchandising. 

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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